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Can Court-Ordered Restrictions on Co-Parenting Communications Violate a Parent’s Constitutional Rights?

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The short answer, according to a recent Appeals Court Memorandum and Order Pursuant to Rule 23.0, is yes. In the unpublished case of Sanavage v. Chavis, the parties were never married and were the parents of one child together. Following a trial on the father’s complaint for custody, support and parenting time, the Probate and Family Court issued a judgment ordering, in relevant part, that the child should continue to reside primarily with the mother, that father would have regular parenting time, and that the parents would abide by specific provisions with respect to their co-parenting communications, such as only communicating with each other about matters related to the child and only via text message or email, among other restrictions. The trial judge inserted these detailed provisions because the evidence presented at trial demonstrated that the parties had experienced difficulty in co-parenting effectively throughout the child’s life; presumably, the judge was intending to reduce any similar friction by imposing certain limitations on the parties’ future co-parenting communications.

On appeal, the mother argued that some of the co-parenting provisions contained in the trial court judgment violated her rights under both the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Upon review, a panel of Justices of the Appeals Court agreed. The Appeals Court panel held that certain provisions of the judgment violated the mother’s Constitutional right to free speech by imposing an impermissible prior restraint on her speech without providing a sufficiently compelling state interest for doing so. Additionally, the panel held that the mother’s Constitution rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment were also infringed because the lower court’s judgment did not contain findings sufficient to demonstrate that the state’s attempted interference with the mother’s liberty interest as a parent was necessary in order to protect the child from harm. Accordingly, that portion of the judgment was vacated and remanded to the lower court to either be modified such that the co-parenting restrictions would not infringe on the mother’s Constitutional rights or, in the alternative, for the court to issue more specific finding justifying the restrictions it had imposed. Although the specific terms of the lower court judgment that the Appeals Court panel held to be violative of the mother’s Constitutional rights are not mentioned in its decision, the outcome of Sanavage v. Chavis is a strong reminder of the existing Constitutional limitations on the Probate and Family Court’s authority to issue judgments that contain restrictions on the parties’ abilities to parent their children and/or to communicate freely with one another.

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