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Protective Order Denied in Privately Run Florida Juvenile Facility Class-Action Suit

A Florida federal district court has denied a motion for a protective order filed by the defendants in a class-action lawsuit brought by five current or former residents of Thompson Academy, a juvenile facility managed by Youth Services International, Inc. (YSI) with funding from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (FDJJ).

The 14-count complaint includes causes of action against YSI, two counselors at Thompson Academy, the facility administrator and FDJJ’s Secretary. The lawsuit seeks declaratory and injunctive relief for failure to protect juveniles from harm, violation of their right to court access, retaliation, denial of due process, denial of necessary medical care, and denial of adequate and nutritious meals, plus declaratory relief and damages for incidents involving “Staff-on-Youth Sexual Assault.”

In the latter regard, a 14-year-old boy was allegedly sexually assaulted by a male counselor at the facility, twice. According to a news report, attorneys for the YSI defendants claimed that if such sexual encounters had occurred they were consensual, because “the teenager was gay and enjoyed performing oral sex on the counselor.”

The defendants argued they were entitled to a protective gag order due to actions by the plaintiffs or their counsel that “saturated the media” with information about the case as part of a “media campaign” designed “to try and convict [ ] Defendants in the local press, robbing [ ] Defendants, at this early stage of the litigation, of their right to a fair and impartial jury and trial.”

The plaintiffs were represented by the Montgomery, Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which describes itself as an organization that “engages in campaigns [that] use litigation, community mobilization, media, and policy advocacy to reduce juvenile imprisonment and increase use [of] community-based alternatives to incarceration.”

To support their motion for a protective order, the defendants cited a local rule and a Florida Bar Rule which prohibit extrajudicial statements that reveal information that would interfere with a fair trial. The Southern Poverty Law Center countered that it engages in “core political speech” and should be afforded First Amendment rights similar to the NAACP or ACLU when pursuing “public interest lawsuits.”

The district court did not reach that issue, finding instead that the extrajudicial statements at issue occurred from October to December 2010. With a trial scheduled for June 20, 2011, the court held that the timing of the statements and likelihood of prejudice did not warrant a protective order.

Moreover, plaintiffs’ counsel represented that the statements in question were aimed at legislative proposals to privatize prisons, which would no longer be significant after the legislative session ends. Counsel, at oral argument, recognized the need to tailor publicity efforts as the trial grows closer. The district court noted there was not a “carnival atmosphere” that would justify a protective order.

Based on those factors, the court denied the defendants’ motion on March 31, 2011. See: D.L. v. Slattery, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Fla.), Case No. 0:10-cv-61902-KMM; 2011WL1303167.
As it turned out, the defendants’ posturing over media publicity in the case was moot, as the lawsuit settled shortly before trial. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

Additional source: Broward-Palm Beach New Times

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Related legal case

D.L. v. Slattery