Criminalizing Criticism: Restraining Orders, the First Amendment, and Chan v. Ellis

Posted on November 1, 2014


This search term brought a visitor here a day or two ago: “restraining order in ohio because a couple texts.”

It struck a chord with this author, because he himself was issued a restraining order on a similar basis (three emails over a weekend). There were accompanying allegations, but the court’s final ruling was based exclusively on the emails (i.e., speech). They weren’t even judged threatening, just unwanted (the contents, in fact, weren’t read by the court).

Some people are issued restraining orders on even more tenuous bases, like criticizing their plaintiffs on Facebook or in a blog or other online medium. If you’re such a person, you should be aware of a case before the Georgia Supreme Court that’s been the subject of a prior post on this blog: Chan v. Ellis.

The court was scheduled to hear opening arguments on October 7.

A summary of the case by UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh, along with his legal commentary in support of the appellant, Matthew Chan, is here.

The First Amendment protects the right to speak about people, so long as the speech does not fall into an established First Amendment exception (such as those for defamation or for true threats). This includes the right to speak about private figures, especially when they do something that others see—rightly or wrongly—as unethical.

Restraining orders and criminal stalking law may properly restrict unwanted speech to a person. But they may not restrict unwanted speech about a person, again unless the speech falls within a First Amendment exception. The trial court’s order thus violates the First Amendment.

If you’ve been issued an injunction from the court based exclusively on your speaking publicly about its plaintiff (and you didn’t threaten or lie about him or her), a verdict in favor of Mr. Chan could conceivably provide you with grounds for an appeal. FYI.

See Mr. Chan’s website,, for trial updates. A ruling, he reports, should be returned between mid-January and mid-March.

The case stands to highlight judicial abuse of discretion and power and is one anybody who’s been put through the restraining order wringer will want to track.

Copyright © 2014

*Update: The Georgia Supreme Court returned a verdict in favor of Matthew Chan on March 27, 2015.