A Santa Barbara judge, concerned jurors might ignore admonitions not to do Internet research on the case, went too far in ordering a lawyer to take down two web pages about her success in similar cases. The Second District Court of Appeals ruled last week that the order to take down the pages during an asbestos injury trial amounted to prior restraint on the lawyer’s free speech rights.
At the request of defendants Volkswagen and Ford Motor Co., the judge had ordered attorney Simona A. Farrise to take down two pages from her website, during a 2011 trial, touting her success against Ford in similar asbestos cases, including a $1.6 million verdict and a second $4.3 million verdict.
Farrise represented Richard and Christie Steiner in a personal injury case after Richard contracted lung cancer. He alleged his cancer was caused by exposure to asbestos in friction auto parts made by Ford Volkswagen and other companies.
The Steiners argued the request infringed their lawyer’s constitutional free speech rights and the proper remedy was to tell jurors not to search the Internet for information about the lawyers.
This all happened back in 2011 and the case went to the state Supreme Court, but at that time, Farrise claimed the trial judge had told her to take down her entire website. The Supreme Court sent the case back to the appeals court to reconsider.
Justice Steven Perren pointed out that Farrise conceded she was not ordered to remove the entire website, but only two pages.
The trial ended in October 2011 and the two website pages were restored.
Perren said the trial judge correctly admonished jurors not to search the Internet for information about the case. The judge did not have authority to impose a prophylactic measure by ordering Farrise to remove pages from her law firm website.
Trial courts should focus on tougher admonition rules and contempt consequences, rather than on trying to restrain speech on the Internet, Perren said.
“If a juror ignored these admonitions, the court had tools at its disposal to address the issue,” he said. He was joined by Justices Arthur Gilbert and Kenneth Yegan.
As for the restraint on Farrise, because the order is no longer in effect, the issue is ended.
Case: Steiner v. Sup. Ct.Santa Barbara, No. B235347