PROVIDENCE — The ACLU of RI is defending a Massachusetts website publisher facing censorship via Superior Court order to remove posts about a Hopkinton, RI resident and business woman’s YouTube video of a Kent Hospital visit.
On May 13, Aidan Kearney, Worcester, MA publisher of turtleboysports.com, was ordered by a Rhode Island Superior Court judge to “immediately remove” from his website “any and all posts, blogs, and comments” regarding a Kathryn Narcisi of Hopkinton, RI, who sued him for libel.
In February, Kearney re-posted a video and numerous Facebook comments originally posted to the web by Narcisi after she posted to Facebook asking for media coverage of her Feb. 4 visit to Kent County Hospital, where she claimed the hospital refused to treat her for autoimmune disease.
Kent County Hospital’s communication department declined to comment on her visit, saying they are unable to discuss patient matters publicly.
Kearney’s reposts were accompanied by skeptical and mocking headlines, commentary and captions, including “American Idol Outtakes” Narcisi had posted of her singing. Kearney posted a blog titled, “Failure Swift Gets Kicked Out of Warwick’s Kent Hospital for Faking Sickness, Posts Facebook Video Whining in Lobby, Tries to Get National News Attention Despite Long History of GoFundMes,” which generated a number of posted comments, also often mocking Narcisi.
In May, Narcisi filed a libel lawsuit claiming the blog posts “defamed and discredited” her, and that it led to her receiving unwanted messages “from followers of the defendant’s website.” At a court hearing held without notifying Kearney, RI Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl issued a temporary restraining order requiring the removal of any and all references to Narcisi from Kearney’s website and all other “associated” sites.
After learning about the order and that it was scheduled for another hearing to consider whether it should be extended indefinitely, Kearney contacted the ACLU, which agreed to provide legal assistance to address these significant First Amendment issues. ACLU of RI cooperating attorney Lynette Labinger removed the case to federal court on Tuesday, and will be filing a formal motion to dismiss the lawsuit next week.
“What planet am I on right now?,” Kearney said in a press statement from the ACLU of RI., “The State of Rhode Island is allowing this woman to go forward with a lawsuit against me for damages due to ‘injury to her feelings,’ because people not associated with Turtleboy contacted her without us asking them to do so. Madness.”
Labinger said the case is an important First Amendment challenge that should not go uncontested.
“The internet can be full of intemperate and uncomfortable discussions. When they are about you, the natural reaction is to want to make them go away. But we must never lose sight of the important First Amendment rights of free speech and free press that will be lost if we or our courts give in to those reactions. To quote a 50-year old U.S. Supreme Court decision: ‘It is firmly settled that under our Constitution the public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers,” she said.
“A judge has no right to tell an independent media outlet to remove factually based content and commentary from a website, particularly since this website is my livelihood,” said Kearney. “As a former history teacher, I understand why the Founding Fathers insisted that free speech be protected in the Bill of Rights, particularly speech that some may find offensive. Protecting agreeable speech is easy, but our freedoms are put to the test when some find it to be controversial.”
“The court’s order requiring the removal of items from a website is a classic prior restraint that the First Amendment simply does not countenance,” said Steven Brown, ACLU of RI executive director. “In order to avoid a chilling effect on Internet speech, we are hopeful that this suit will be dismissed promptly.”
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