Parents' Web site prompts defamation lawsuit, restraining order
ACLU says court order violates couples' First Amendment rights
VIRGINIA -- The fate of a Web site critical of Hargrave Military Academy and its president, Col. Wheeler M. Baker, has turned into a waiting game. The site's creators, Jerry and Melissa Guyles, have been waiting a little over 20 days to find out whether or not they will be allowed to resume operating their site after a federal district court issued a temporary restraining order requiring them to shut it down.
The Guyles created the site, HargraveHasProblems.com, after their son Stewart was expelled from the Chatham, Va., prep school in March. According to Anthony Monioudis, the attorney representing both Baker and Hargrave, Stewart was caught stealing and the case was brought before Hargrave's Honor Court, which recommended his dismissal.
Along with creating the site, the Guyles also circulated a letter to other Hargrave parents questioning Baker's professionalism. Shortly after, Hargrave and Baker sued the couple for libel, tortuous interference, conspiracy and unfair trade practices, according to an Associated Press article.
''The information in the letter and on the Web site, from our perspective, was viewed as defamatory. It was just false statements with the purpose of tortuous interference with the relationship between Hargrave and its existing students and future students. We thought there were legal wrongs that we wanted remedied,'' Monioudis said.
Statements in the letter along with ones on the Web site implied that Baker alone made the dismissal decision, which is not correct, Monioudis said.
''The dismissal went through the honor code system, which each cadet is aware of. The honor code was who recommended the expulsion and then [Baker] accepted that recommendation. The tone of the letter was that [Hargrave] did not follow protocol...which is absolutely false,''
After the May 8 temporary restraining order was issued, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia filed a 10 page friend-of-the-court brief arguing that requiring the Guyles to remove the site was a violation of their First Amendment rights, said Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia.
''The [temporary restraining order] should not have been granted because essentially the legal precedent and long tradition of this nation is of not restraining speech until it becomes absolutely necessary and is proven unlawful,'' Willis said.
Issuing a temporary restraining order to restrain speech is very rare, ''particularly in which only one side has a chance to argue its case,'' he said.
''Our main point is, when it comes to free speech, the court should lean heavily in favor of the speaker all the way through and of course, that would include a full hearing. The question is not so much is it lawful or not, but who is harmed the most by not allowing the speech to take place,'' Willis said.
After the initial temporary restraining order was issued, both sides were scheduled to come before the court to hold a preliminary injunction hearing. However, the date for that hearing has been postponed several times. Until a hearing occurs, the temporary restraining order keeping the Web site off the Internet stays in place, with the next scheduled date for the injunction hearing set for July 7, Monioudis said.
''[Our brief] is filed...all we can do is wait, and of course that's disappointing because as long as there's not a preliminary injunction the [temporary restraining order] stays in place,'' Willis said.
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