Evans v. Evans: Appellate Court Throws Out Prior Restraint

Yesterday, a California appellate court struck down a brazenly unconstitutional preliminary injunction prohibiting two defendants from making "false and defamatory statements" about, or publishing the "confidential personal information" of, Thomas Evans, a deputy sheriff in San Diego. The case, Evans v. Evans, 2008 WL 2009669 (Cal. Ct. App. May 12, 2008), involves a nasty post-divorce dispute between Thomas Evans and his former wife, Linda Evans, and her mother, Shirley Preddy. Linda and Preddy allegedly posted false statements about Thomas on various websites, filed complaints about him with his employer, and published confidential information from his medical and financial records on the Internet. The lower court granted Thomas a broad preliminary injunction against their alleged misconduct, without specifying any particular forbidden statements or defining what "confidential personal information" means.

The appellate court held that the preliminary injunction was an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech, and that it was unconstitutionally vague because it failed to alert Linda and Preddy as to what conduct would violate the court's order. The case itself is relatively prosaic; it is interesting largely because it demonstrates yet again just how unfamiliar many lower court judges are with basic First Amendment principles. Beyond that, it tells us two important things about California law relating to prior restraints:

  1. The venerable principle that courts cannot enjoin alleged defamation before trial still holds despite the Calfornia Supreme Court's decision in Balboa Island Village Inn, Inc. v. Lemen, 40 Cal.4th 1141 (2007). Not a huge surprise. According to Evans, Balboa means only that a court may order a defendant not to make certain specific statements found at trial to be false and defamatory.

  2. A court has more leeway to prohibit the publication of private personal information than to prohibit publication of allegedly false statements. A court must balance the free-speech interests in publication against the the right of privacy recognized in the California Constitution. The appellate court suggested that the lower court would be "fully justified" in prohibiting the disclosure of Thomas's telephone number, address, and Social Security number on the Internet, especially because he is a police officer. But, the lower court didn't even identify what supposedly private information needed protection, much less balance any of the relevant factors (listed on page 15 of the slip opinion).
For background on the case, see our database entry, Evans v. Evans.



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