May trial court order temporary removal of attorney's website postings which could prejudice jurors?
Easy access to social media and the Internet provide great learning and informational tools. But with these benefits have come abuses and challenges for many of society's institutions, educational and judicial to name two. For educators, the challenge involves patrolling some students' trying to cheat their way through their education. For judges, it is a matter of guaranteeing a fair trial where jurors are to decide cases based only on evidence presented in the court proceedings, and not from outside sources.
In Steiner v. Superior Court (filed and published 10/30/13) No. B235347, after jurors were impaneled, defendants Volkswagen and Ford moved the trial court to order that plaintiffs' counsel remove from her website, until the conclusion of trial, two entries touting recent successes against Ford and others in similar asbestos cases. The first article discussed a $1.6 million award, boasting the jury there overcame "defendants' court confusion" to finding them at fault. A second article listed a similar $4.3 million award. Defendants here claimed that the curious human nature of jurors might cause them to Google the attorney and become prejudiced by this provocative information. Plaintiffs and their counsel opposed the motion as infringing upon counsel's right to free speech; that the more appropriate remedy would be to admonish the jurors to not search the Internet.
The trial court granted the motion and additionally admonished the jurors not to Google the attorneys, nor to use the Internet in any way. Plaintiffs petitioned the Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division Six, for a writ of mandate, which was initially summarily denied. Petitioners petitioned for review in the California Supreme Court. The petition misstated that the trial court had ordered plaintiffs' counsel to "take down her firm's entire website," but went on to say that even if the order was more limited, it would be unreasonable. The Supreme Court granted review and transferred the case back to the appellate court to issue an order to show cause. The appellate court did so, and concluded the order was an unlawful prior restraint on the attorney's free speech rights under the First Amendment. Even though the order was limited (and not as plaintiff's counsel had represented to the Supreme Court), and even under the lesser standard for commercial speech, the public interest in assuring a fair trial is adequately met by juror admonitions and instructions.