Case Otherwise Remains Sealed From Public View
NEW JERSEY – In the first reported case of its kind, the New Jersey Appellate Division has overturned a domestic violence court’s punishment of a woman for making a video asking for community support in getting her husband to provide her a Jewish religious divorce, or “get”—something which, under Jewish law, the man has the sole authority to do.
The case—captioned S.B.B v. L.B.B—stems from a domestic violence complaint filed by a husband, “S.B.B.,” based on a video made by his wife, “L.B.B.,” in which she called her life a “nightmare” because she had not received a get nearly two years after her husband had left her and their three children. L.B.B.’s video, which contained no threats of violence or obscene language, is similar to other videos increasingly made in recent years by “agunot” (“chained women” in Hebrew), the term used for women whose husbands refuse to grant them divorces even though their marriages are effectively dead (and in some cases, even civilly adjudicated). After L.B.B.’s video was posted to social media, her husband took her to a Union County domestic violence court, claiming her video was “harassment.” The judge agreed and entered a restraining order, which remained in place until today’s decision.
In reversing the trial judge’s decision, the Appellate Division noted expert testimony that get refusal is a “form of abuse” in response to which a social justice movement has arisen to liberate women by posting videos like the one in this case. Here, the Court ruled, the video L.B.B. made “was intended to get a get” from her husband—an objective the Court noted was “unquestionably legitimate.” Finally, in language that will protect other New Jersey women who speak out in similar ways, the Court ruled that “calls to exhort social pressure … would necessarily fall under the aegis of First Amendment protection ….”
Reflecting the significance of the case to various constituencies, L.B.B.’s appeal was supported by the ACLU, Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, and numerous domestic violence organizations, all of whom appeared in the case.
“This case is significant on many levels,” said L.B.B.’s lawyer, Jane J. Felton of Skoloff & Wolfe, P.C., a prominent New Jersey family law firm that took on L.B.B.’s case pro bono. “First and foremost, it stands for the principle that the first amendment fully protects the rights of women to speak out publicly—and to exhort community support—when unable to otherwise get a get. Of course, the same principles would apply to anyone facing any form of abuse or domestic violence.”
“This is a victory for Jewish women and so important for our movement,” added Keshet Starr, the CEO for the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, a New York-basedadvocacy organization that filed a brief in support of L.B.B. Ms. Starr’s organization has helped agunot make videos similar to the one protected in the Court’s decision today, and it has also staged protests in front of the homes and workplaces of husbands who have not provided their wives with gittin (the plural of get). “The Court today made clear that the Constitution protects women in their efforts to ‘exhort social pressure’ to curb the abuse of get refusal, and that is what we have done and will continue to do to help women,” said Ms. Starr.
The case is not over, however. New Jersey courts have kept this case sealed from the public for nearly three years, and its unsealing is the subject of a second appeal filed by the ACLU and other organizations, including Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and domestic violence organizations Shalom Task Force, Unchained at Last, and Project Sanctuary. The ACLU and the other organizations have sought unsealing of their briefs. L.B.B. has sought the unsealing of the entirety of the court’s record. The Appellate Division has not yet ruled on the issue of unsealing.
“For the courts to have kept the entire case under seal has been a further silencing of L.B.B and suppression of her point of view,” notes Felton. “The Court’s ruling today is an important first step for L.B., and we look forward to a ruling on the sealing applications.”
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