NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. The California Supreme Court ruled that there are limits on free speech in the case of a woman who accused a local bar of making child pornography and serving tainted food.
The court, ruling in San Francisco yesterday, said a 6-year-old ban that prevented Anne Lemen from making false and derogatory comments about the Balboa Island Village Inn could be enforced if it was narrowed.
The decision marks the first time that the court has permitted a speech ban in a defamation case. Usually, damages are assessed.
"A judgment of money damages will not always give effective relief from a continuing pattern of defamation," Justice Carlos R. Moreno wrote for the five-person majority in Balboa Island Village v. Lemen.
Two judges dissented.
"To forever gag the speaker ... goes beyond chilling speech; it freezes speech" because violators could face fines or jail, Justice Joyce L. Kennard said.
Lemen, a 52-year-old evangelical Christian who lives next door to the bar, filmed bar patrons and followed customers to their cars. She called employees and customers "drunks" and "whores," accused the bar of selling drugs and making sex videos, and said a bartender was "going to have Satan's children," according to court documents.
The bar owners sued her for defamation. In 2002, a lower court banned her from filming the bar within 25 feet, confronting employees or making derogatory comments.
Specifically, the Orange County Superior Court issued a permanent injunction that barred Lemen and anyone acting on her behalf from saying that the Village Inn distributes illegal drugs, encourages lesbian activities, participates in prostitution, serves as a whorehouse, sells alcohol to minors, makes sex videos, serves tainted food and is involved in child pornography.
The order also prevented Lemen from videotaping the bar and its customers within 25 feet of the business and from contacting employees.
An appeals court overturned all but the videotaping ban in 2004, saying the provisions violated free-speech rights.
In sending the case back to Superior Court for a modified order, the Supreme Court ruled that the speech ban should apply only to Lemen, not to people acting on her behalf, and should allow Lemen to make complaints to government agencies.
However, it said a limited gag order was not unconstitutional.
"An injunction issued following a trial that does no more than prohibit the defendant from repeating the defamation is not a prior restraint and does not offend the 1st Amendment," the majority ruling said.
Bar owner Aric Toll said he was happy with the decision because Lemen's comments have "caused us a great amount of harm."
Toll said Lemen told others that he had Mafia connections and had attempted to kill her.
The bar owner said he had spent about $100,000 pursuing his case against Lemen.
Lemen's lead attorney, D. Michael Bush, said he would consider appealing the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Free speech is the backbone of this country," he said. "Sometimes people, all they have is a voice; they should be able to use it."