Businesses and their attorneys now can use gag orders to deprive even children of their First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
In a disturbing case in Pennsylvania, a drilling company was able to get a family a legal agreement that could prevent the two children from discussing – for the rest of their lives – the subject of fracking for natural gas.
A gag order is a legal agreement that bars individuals from discussing certain topics. Such orders are often signed in lawsuit settlements. The lawsuit in question here was between Stephanie and Chris Hallowich of Mt. Pleasant, Pennsylvania, and Range Resources, a gas-drilling company. A settlement the Hallowichs reached with Range Resources in 2011 banned their 7-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son from ever discussing fracking.
The Hallowichs effectively signed away their children’s right to freedom of speech for $750,000, The Guardian newspaper reported. The Hallowichs alleged that Range Resources had contaminated the wells on their 10-acre farm with its drilling. They sued, charging that the contamination caused health problems, including headaches and sore throats.
When the couple settled the suit, Range Resources’ attorney insisted that the gag order cover not only the parents, but their kids, too. The company didn’t want the kids talking to anybody about what had happened to the family.
Additionally, Range Resources attorney James Swetz tried to get the case sealed to prevent the public from finding out about this assault on free speech. Fortunately, the documents were unsealed after a request by The Pittsburg Post-Gazette newspaper.
Legal scholars questioned by the Post Gazette’s reporters said that they had never heard of such a gag order covering children. None of the attorneys involved in the case had heard of gag orders being used to silence kids.
Interestingly enough, even some within Range Resources were troubled by the gag order. When a reporter asked the company’s spokesman about the gag order, he said the company didn’t agree with it. The spokesman, Matt Pitzarella, even apologized to the Hallowich family.
Is It Legal?
The danger from this gag order is that similar tactics could be used to try and silence children in other cases.
The good news is that such an agreement may not be legally binding. It might bind the children as long as they are minors — but not when they turn 18.
“They are children and can’t be bound by such an agreement, a contract, but the wild card is the court approval of the agreement,” said Harry Flechtner, a University of Pittsburgh law professor.
Said Jessie Allen, another University of Pittsburgh law professor, “It’s right to react to this as strange and the lawyers involved reflect that when they say they’ve never seen that. My reaction is it’s kind of over the top.”
Such gag orders seem to target lower income people and working families. Individuals might need the money, so they will agree to one. But the impact on children isn’t so certain. No higher court seems to have ruled on such agreements. There is no precedent supporting gag orders on kids, but there’s no precedent against them, either.
Big companies and their lawyers are free to try this tactic again. We don’t know if they will, but it certainly shows the kind of special rights large corporations and the rich people who own them now have in our society. They can even deprive children of their basic rights when it serves their interests.
Corporations now have a new tool for suppressing freedom of speech even for children. Hopefully, the courts will take that weapon away from big business before it is used against other families.