Family courts, when dealing with disputes involving children, must consider a child’s best interests and rule in a way that protects the child. This can, at times, include orders restraining the parents and possibly other adults from making certain statements while litigation is ongoing. For example, a court may order parents not to discuss ongoing litigation with the children. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution sets very strict limits on a court’s power to prevent people from speaking on particular issues. A 2016 appellate court decision from Georgia examined this issue. The court overturned an injunction barring the parents from making any public statements about the case, including on social media, until the youngest child turned 18—i.e., after 10 years.
The First Amendment is very often misunderstood in public discourse. It only restrains the actions of the government with regard to private individuals’ speech. The U.S. Supreme Court summarized the First Amendment’s free speech protections in its 1972 decision in Grayned v. City of Rockford. While the “government has no power to restrict [speech] because of its message,” the court noted “that reasonable ‘time, place and manner’ regulations…are permitted.” This means that government officials cannot prevent a person from saying something solely because they do not like what the person has to say, but they can prevent the person from shouting it through a megaphone outside someone’s house in the middle of the night.
Since the First Amendment generally only allows the government to restrain speech based on “time, place, and manner,” most efforts to prevent a person from saying something in advance—often known as prior restraint—are unconstitutional. In 1963’s Bantam Books, Inc. v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court stated that “[a]ny system of prior restraints of expression…bear[s] a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity.” The injunction at issue in the Georgia case was arguably a form of prior restraint.