Blog: Woman loses free-speech challenge in custody case

Monday, June 28, 2010

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A California trial judge’s order that a woman quit interfering with a custody order does not violate her First Amendment free-speech rights, a California appeals court has ruled.

Victoria Hartmann contended that Santa Barbara County Judge Thomas P. Anderle’s restraining order that barred her from obstructing her husband’s time with their children was overly broad and vague. Victoria and Peter Hartmann, who separated in 2002 and had a dissolution trial in 2007, had argued over whether they should send their eldest daughter to a private boarding school or to a local public school. Victoria favored the boarding school, while Peter favored a nearby public school in part so he could see his daughter more frequently.

Peter Hartmann had filed a motion for a restraining order in 2007, contending that Victoria had alienated his children from him by repeatedly bad-mouthing him and telling them lies. Judge Anderle granted the restraining order, which ordered her to stop such interference with her husband’s custody rights. In 2008, Peter asked the judge to find Victoria in contempt for violating the order.

Victoria filed a motion in 2009 to vacate the restraining order, contending that it was too vague and broad. When Anderle rejected her motion, she appealed to the California Court of Appeals. The appeals court unanimously rejected her claims in its June 23 opinion in In Re Hartmann.

With respect to the vagueness charge, the appeals court noted that the trial judge’s order merely commanded Victoria to quit interfering with the custody order. “Her argument amounts to nothing more than that the word ‘interfere’ as used in the restraining order is not sufficiently precise,” Justice Arthur R. Gilbert wrote for the court. “But ‘interfere’ is an ordinary English word. It is used in statutes defining contempt of court.” Gilbert concluded that the order was clear.

Gilbert also rejected the overbreadth claim, noting that the trial judge’s directive “only prohibits speech that interferes with the custody order.” He added that “courts routinely order the parties not to make disparaging comments about the other parent to their children or in their children’s presence.”

Gilbert concluded his opinion firmly: “Let there be no doubt, Wife must stop interfering with the custody order.”

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