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Monday, August 12, 2019

Can Excluding Someone from a Town Be a Proper Remedy in a Libel/Harassment Case?

By Eugene Volokh - August 12, 2019 at 08:06AM

From a New Hampshire Supreme Court decision earlier this year in MacDonald v. Jacobs:

The record supports the following facts. The defendant [Lisa Jacobs] seasonally resides in Fitzwilliam. According to the plaintiffs [Lorraine and Peter MacDonald], in 2012 they purchased a vacation home that abuts or is near the defendant's family's property.

Thereafter, the defendant began letter-writing campaigns in which she falsely accused the plaintiffs of, among other things, a variety of illegal activities. In 2016, the plaintiffs sued the defendant for defamation. Following a trial, the jury found that the defendant's statements were defamatory and that they were made with malice, thereby warranting the award of special damages. In addition, the trial court, finding the defendant's statements "vast and disturbing," issued a permanent injunction prohibiting the defendant from, inter alia, going within a five-mile radius of the plaintiffs' home in Fitzwilliam [where defendant's family has a summer home] and from entering the plaintiffs' hometown in Sterling, Massachusetts….

The trial court found that the geographical restrictions it imposed were "appropriate because a less restrictive order would be ineffective." According to the court, the plaintiffs' "fear for their safety is a rational response to [the defendant's] relentless and increasingly intimidating behavior," and the defendant's "several threats" toward the plaintiffs provided a "compelling interest" for granting the injunction. Thus, the trial court reasoned that preventing the defendant from accessing her family's summer home in Fitzwilliam, "the epicenter from which all of [her] attacks have stemmed, [was] an appropriate, narrowly tailored restriction to address this interest."

The trial court further found that "[the defendant] has more than demonstrated her belief that she has a right to harass the [plaintiffs] and that she has an absolute fixation on the victims. She has published defamatory, false materials; contacted numerous federal and state authorities to report these falsities; threatened the [plaintiffs'] lives; and travelled to the [plaintiffs'] hometown in Massachusetts to solicit signatures to support her false and extreme accusations. [The defendant] has also given the Court no indication that she will abide by a more narrow court order, and she has shown no contrition for any of her actions—actions that were defamatory, threatening, and even criminal, as she was arrested for impersonating an agent of the New Hampshire Attorney General a week before trial and yet testified during the defamation case that she was such an agent.

"Even when the defamation case was approaching trial, and even with standing orders from this Court to refrain from harassing the [plaintiffs], [the defendant] published more defamatory material. [The defendant's] increasingly threatening actions and her failure to follow previous court orders make geographical banishments necessary.

"[The defendant] has harassed the [plaintiffs] … for no apparent reason and they have been driven to desperation by continuous harassment…. These innocent victims deserve to be able to live their lives free from the constant fear of being tormented and attacked. The geographic restriction … will provide them with a margin of territorial safety in which they can live in peace. This Court also considered the fact that the [Fitzwilliam] property, where [the defendant] has occasionally resided, is not a year-round residence, and that [the defendant] was not at the residence during the summer months of 2017…. [The defendant], therefore, would not have her liberty and right to travel overly burdened by the five-mile restriction around the [plaintiffs'] Fitzwilliam residence. Similarly, since [the defendant] is not a resident of Sterling, and has not evidenced reasons to visit Sterling other than to garner signatures for her false affidavits implicating the [plaintiffs], preventing her from entering Sterling would not unconstitutionally constrict her right to travel."

To the extent the defendant challenges the injunction because there was insufficient evidence for the trial court to conclude that she presents a danger to others, we disagree. The trial court relied upon evidence that the defendant sent a letter to several state and federal authorities, including the Boston, Massachusetts office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), stating that she had "been having fears of homicidal ideation of having to be put in the position of killing the [plaintiffs] and or their drunken tenants." The trial court also found that in her letter to the FBI the defendant stated that she had considered hiring a federal contractor "with an assault weapon to try to protect [her] to help [her] calm down" when she was at the house in Fitzwilliam, that "issues between neighbors blossom to the point until someday one neighbor gets a gun and shoots the other neighbor," and that she had "thought about getting a gun."

Based upon this evidence, the trial court found that the defendant is "irrational and quite capable of inflicting harm — both physical and emotional" on the plaintiffs, that she believes she is a "surrogate" of multiple law enforcement agencies, including the New Hampshire Attorney General and the New Hampshire State Police, and that "[i]t is quite rational to conclude that she could convince herself — as a self-proclaimed law enforcement agent — to arm herself," which would be a "disastrous, but foreseeable, result." Thus, there is ample support in the record to support the trial court's determination that the defendant presents a danger to others….

[T]o the extent that the defendant argues that the injunction unconstitutionally restricts her freedom of travel, she has failed to develop this argument sufficiently for our review.


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