A San Diego court violated a retired teacher’s right to free speech when it barred her from mentioning on her website the name of a law firm, an appeals court ruled this week.

The ruling came out of a long and winding defamation case. Stutz, Artiano, Shinoff & Holtz, which frequently represents school districts, brought the suit against its acerbic critic, Maura Larkins.

Her blog once claimed “a culture of misrepresentation and deception exists at Stutz Artiano & Shinoff,” and that the firm intended to obstruct education law.

Two years ago, the two sides reached a settlement. The court said Larkins had to remove defamatory statements from her websites, including accusations of illegal or unethical conduct.

Larkins altered them. But the law firm argued that her websites still defamed them in other statements. After some back-and-forth, Judge Judith Hayes ordered Larkins to take any mention of Stutz Artiano off her websites and stop her from making new statements about them “by any method or media.”

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“Every time I rule that defendant shouldn’t use one phraseology, she simply switches to another in an attempt — apparent attempt to circumvent the court’s order,” Hayes said, according to a court transcript.

Stutz Artiano called it “a proper sanction.” It added, “Larkins cannot now hide behind the First Amendment following her repeated failure to comply with the court’s orders.” After Larkins kept references to Stutz Artiano on her websites, the court ordered her to pay $3,000 in sanctions.

But Larkins and University of San Diego law professor Shaun Martin argued that the court order flew in the face of the First Amendment. Martin called it “not only meritless, but profoundly dangerous.”

Martin argued that even if someone had made defamatory statements about someone in the past, they don’t lose their First Amendment right to make any statements about them at all.

The appeals court agreed, concluding that it was unconstitutional and “exceedingly broad” to bar Larkins from making any statements about the Stutz Artiano firm, even truthful ones.

The lawsuit now goes back to trial court, where the judge could opt for another punishment for Larkins not complying with earlier court orders on the settlement.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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