Q: A judge issued a gag order against me from speaking out about my ex-husband’s domestic violence charges. My ex showed the judge screenshots of my Facebook posts where I had asked my friends to pray for my children and I before I had to face him in court after he attacked me, and the judge said I was no longer allowed to post anything about the charges. I don’t understand how this is legal. -Anonymous
A: Unfortunately, it is, even though this doesn’t seem fair. A judge can issue a gag order, a legal order that restricts information from being released publicly or to an unauthorized third party, under the auspices of ensuring a fair trial. Typically, it’s used to protect the privacy of minors or victims, but when gag orders are used to protect accused abusers, it feels like another way to shame and silence survivors.
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Not that it makes the situation any better, but you’re not alone. This past March, Crown Point, Indiana criminal court judge Diane Boswell issued a gag order against an accused abuser, his victim and their attorneys from speaking about the domestic violence allegations in public. The abuser’s attorney accused the victim of publicly disparaging her ex-partner after the abuser, who was convicted twice before of domestic battery, physically assaulted the victim and kept her trapped in her home for nearly 16 hours in January.
I spoke with long-time domestic violence advocate and former attorney Barry Goldstein, co-editor of Domestic Violence, Abuse and Child Custody about this controversial move some judges make and he said, unfortunately, gag orders are all too common.
“Gag orders are the ultimate means to silence and control. They’re mainly used against women,” says Goldstein. “Usually [judges] say it’s on both parties, but they end up limiting what victims can say. They reinforce victims’ shame.”
Goldstein says he’s seen gag orders go so far as to prevent a victim from speaking to a therapist, doctor, clergy member or even a victim’s advocate, a violation of a victim’s civil rights.
Sometimes, gag orders are issued with the intent to protect children by preventing parents from speaking disparagingly about the other parent. But Goldstein argues these orders only serve to further empower abusive fathers by forbidding a protective parent from asking their children questions about abuse, or bringing up that abuse in court, that may have occurred when children were alone with the abuser, a fact abusers knowingly take advantage of.
“Judges also use gag orders to avoid criticism of themselves—they frame it as protecting the child, but it’s protecting the judge. They’ve made a bad call that’s harming the child and don’t want any public criticism.
Goldstein says he’s known judges who have threatened to take a child away from their mother if she speaks out about the family court process on social media.
So, what can you do? There’s always the option to appeal a judge’s decision, which means a higher court will review the decision from the lower court. However, appeals are often pricey, take time and the process is complicated, three barriers that prevent many survivors from going forward. You can find out more details about appealing a court order here.
You can also consider complaining to your state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct, an independent state agency that investigates complaints of judicial misconduct. Each state should have one—you can search for your state here. However, warns Goldstein, these commissions are often severely underfunded (read: it’ll take a while to get a response) and, he says, “they’re often made up of a legal community who wants to protect judges.” I know, that’s not exactly hopeful.
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Here’s a bit of good news to focus on: the gag order is most likely temporary and will only be in effect as long as the case is ongoing. After that, it should be lifted, and you won’t have to worry about watching what you say about your abuser. Sometimes, what people who have never experienced abuse don’t realize is that it can be healing to speak out about abuse. Some positive ways to do this include finding a support group near you (or joining one online, such as the DomesticShelters.org Victims and Survivors Community on Facebook), or becoming a domestic violence advocate and using your story to inspire survivors to keep going. You can learn more in our articles:
In the meantime, it may be helpful to journal your thoughts or your worries in order to give yourself an outlet for this stress. Read more in “Putting Trauma Down in Words.” You can also try a gratitude journal which may help relieve anxiety by focusing on what’s working for you right now.
Ask Amanda is meant to offer helpful resources and information about domestic violence. If in crisis, please reach out to your nearest domestic violence shelter for the guidance of a trained advocate.
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