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Free Speech

Restraining Order May Ban False Accusations, But Can't Ban "Speaking About [Someone] to Others"


From Thompson v. Britton, decided today by the Minnesota Court of Appeals, in an opinion by Judge Michelle Larkin, joined by Judges Randall Slieter and Francis Connolly:

Tyler Grant Thompson petitioned for an HRO [Harassment Restraining Order] against appellant Arlen Britton…. Thompson alleged that Britton regularly made phone calls to the police, Thompson's treatment center, and Thompson's social worker, accusing Thompson of "assault, sexual assault, theft and drug use." … The district court issued an HRO against Britton for a period of two years, finding that he "harassed [Thompson] by contacting various people and places associated with [Thompson] and making allegations of criminal behavior against [Thompson]." The district court ordered Britton to have no direct or indirect contact with Thompson, prohibited Britton from being within 100 feet of Thompson's residence, and prohibited Britton "from speaking about [Thompson] to others." …

The district court may grant an HRO if "the court finds … that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the respondent has engaged in harassment." Harassment includes "repeated incidents of intrusive or unwanted acts, words, or gestures that have a substantial adverse effect or are intended to have a substantial adverse effect on the safety, security, or privacy of another." …

A fact-finder "may infer that a person intends the natural and probable consequences of his actions." Britton testified that he called a social worker "to report some concerning conduct" regarding Thompson. Thompson's social worker testified that Britton called him "to complain" about Thompson and to warn that Thompson "was doing illegal things, felonious things" while in treatment. This record supports the district court's implicit inference that Britton acted with intent to have a substantial adverse effect on Thompson's safety, security, or privacy….

In sum, the record supports the issuance of the HRO, and Britton's assertions of error do not establish a basis for relief.

If a district court finds that harassment has occurred, the court may "issue a restraining order that provides any or all of the following: (1) orders the respondent to cease or avoid the harassment of another person; or (2) orders the respondent to have no contact with another person." In granting relief, the district court is limited to the protections allowed by the statute….

Britton argues that the district court violated his First Amendment rights by prohibiting him from engaging in all speech about Thompson, even non-harassing speech. Again, the district court broadly prohibited Britton "from speaking about [Thompson] to others." We need not address the constitutional question because the prohibition exceeds the protections authorized in the HRO statute and cannot stand for that reason.

The district court found that Britton's communications with Thompson's treatment provider and social worker regarding Thompson's alleged criminal behavior constituted harassment. The HRO statute authorized the district court to prohibit such communications. But the statute simply does not authorize the order prohibiting Britton "from speaking about [Thompson] to others" even if the speech does not constitute harassment. We therefore reverse section 1.f. of the district court's order and remand for the district court to amend its order consistent with the remedies allowed under the HRO statute….