Photo: Chip Somodevilla//Getty Images

Less than a week after a Michigan circuit judge told all “potential witnesses” against disgraced gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar to stop talking, several women who said Nassar sexually abused them are fighting back. Rachael Denhollander, Lindsey Lemke, and Jamie Dantzscher, as well as the “more than 80 alleged victims of sexual abuse” by Nassar, are cited in a lawsuit asking that the gag order be thrown out for multiple reasons—among them that it is too broad, too vague, and violates multiple constitutional rights, ultimately turning Nassar’s victims “into mindless automatons who can only speak through formal legal pleadings.”

The lawsuit was filed yesterday in federal court in Michigan. It names the circuit judge who signed the gag order, Rosemarie Aquilina, as well as Nassar and the state attorney general as defendants. So far, more than 80 people have reached out to law enforcement in Michigan saying they were sexually assaulted by the former doctor for the USA Gymnastics national team and Michigan State. The gag order itself is in a criminal case not connected to Nassar’s medical work.

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The complaint goes through the different ways it believes the gag order violates the rights of those coming forward. The women affected by the order were not notified by the court about the request—filed by Nassar’s defense team—and weren’t told that the request was being heard by the court, their lawsuit says. The court filing also points out that the order as approved applies to “all parties, all current and potential witnesses and counsel for all current and potential witnesses, related to this case.”

The broadness of that language, the lawyers say, is a problem: “The language added by the Court was not explicit, specific, or narrowly tailored, and did not explain or describe in sufficient detail who was covered by the proposed order or the scope of content restrained.” That language means the women are now barred from “discussing matters that are clearly protected by the First Amendment and are matters of public importance, as they touch on matters of sexual abuse and the safety of children who participate in youth-oriented sports.”

These noble causes strike at the very core of the speech that is entitled to the greatest degree of First Amendment protection—political speech. To limit Plaintiffs to only provide “a direct quote—and without elaboration—of a statement contained in a pleading which specifically cite that pleading and the court(s) in which it was filed” makes a mockery of the First Amendment by essentially turning Plaintiffs—particularly the Plaintiff victims—into mindless automatons who can only speak through formal legal pleadings.

Clarity might come in the form of a witness list for that case, but so far one hasn’t been filed in any of the Nassar criminal cases, the complaint says. The plaintiffs also haven’t heard from either Nassar’s lawyers or the state attorney general if they will be called as witnesses. Without knowing if they will be called to testify, the best they can do is guess. And by tying the ability to speak to what is in court filings, the complaint says, the gag order “creates a de facto requirement for any victim who seeks to tell her story publicly to file a lawsuit first.”

For example, following the entry of the Gag Order, the Plaintiff law firms have received telephone calls from a number of the Plaintiff victims, and other victims who have not yet pursued criminal or civil prosecution, who are concerned they will be thrown in jail or otherwise punished if they come forward publicly.

The Law Firm Plaintiffs are in the process of advising their clients to cease communication with all third parties including law enforcement, media, medical professionals, family and friends due to the potential for violation of the Gag Order.

This type of chilling effect and prior restraint comes “with a heavy presumption against constitutional validity” and is “the most serious and the least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights.”

The complaint says that gag order, as it stands, is not the “least restrictive means to protect Nassar’s constitutional rights.” Gag orders directed at trial participants “must be narrowly tailored to specifically limit or prevent only the disclosure of particularly prejudicial evidence or conduct,” according to the complaint. The filing also talks about how quickly Aquilina pushed ahead with the gag order, passing it before considering other possible remedies.

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Along with the complaint, Denhollander, Lemke, and Dantzscher all filed affidavits with the court explaining why they felt it was so important for them to be able to continue to speak publicly. This was, they remind the court, a story that happened largely because women started speaking out, which brought more women forward, finally causing institutions to take notice of decades of alleged abuse. Denhollander told the court:

It is my opinion every athlete who raised concerns about Larry Nassar’s techniques was silenced and officials repeatedly insisted Larry’s sexual assaults were standard medical treatment.

Silencing the victims directly caused harm to me, and to many others, by making itimpossible for us to speak out about our experiences and the actions of Larry Nassar.

The Court’s gag order is another attempt to silence victims, compounding the damage already done.

... As a victim who could have been spared the devastating pain of repeated sexual assault had Larry Nassar, MSU and USAG not been the sole voices listened to and heard, I am deeply distressed to have my freedom to speak taken away and my voice silenced once again.

The complaint cites deprivation of First Amendment rights and deprivation of due process rights. The lawyers also filed motion requesting a temporary restraining order against the gag order and a motion for summary judgment that would have the gag order thrown out.

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The full complaint as well as all three affidavits from the women are below.