by Dana DiFilippo, New Jersey Monitor
A state appeals court has sided with an Orthodox Jewish woman who made a videotaped plea for help to get a divorce, issuing a ruling Wednesday that upholds free speech rights and shines a light on what critics say are abuses in the Jewish divorce process.
At issue was whether the video was constitutionally protected free speech or harassment.
A Union County woman identified in filings only as L.B.B. made the video in March 2021, nearly two years after she and her husband of 20 years separated. In the video, she accused him of improperly withholding a “get,” a Jewish bill of divorce, and asked community members to “press” her husband to give it to her, according to the ruling.
L.B.B. said she only sent the video to a rabbinical judge, but it ended up on social media, prompting strangers to blitz her estranged spouse with calls demanding that he “free his wife” and denouncing him as a “get refuser,” according to the ruling.
The husband, identified as S.B.B. in filings, alleged domestic abuse and sought a restraining order, telling the trial judge the Jewish community reacts violently to the withholding of a get and he feared he could be kidnapped or brutally beaten.
He also denied he withheld the get, claiming he gave it to the Chief Rabbi of Elizabeth in June 2020.
The trial judge deemed the video incitement and a privacy invasion that violated the state’s harassment law, issued a restraining order barring L.B.B. from contacting her husband or posting anything to social media, and ordered $10,035 in compensatory damages, according to the ruling.
L.B.B. filed for reconsideration, enlisting a rabbi to give the court more context about get refusal. Rabbi Daniel Shevitz told the court a man might withhold a get as a form of extortion, rabbinical courts cannot force a husband to grant a get, and S.B.B. had texted L.B.B. in March 2020 that he would only issue the get if she first signed a divorce settlement agreement.
Get refusal is a common “form of abuse” and invoking public sympathy has for centuries been women’s only tool to fight back, Shevitz said, according to the ruling.
But the trial judge denied the motion for reconsideration.
In Wednesday’s ruling, Judge Greta Gooden Brown reversed the lower court’s decision and vacated the restraining order and damages the trial judge had ordered. Gooden Brown, writing for a three-judge appellate panel, said L.B.B.’s “ultimate objective was unquestionably legitimate.”
“The video was intended to get a get. The video did not threaten or menace plaintiff, and nothing in the record suggests that plaintiff’s safety or security was put at risk by the video,” Gooden Brown wrote. “Without credible evidence that the video incited or produced imminent lawless action or was likely to do so, defendant’s speech does not fall within the narrow category of incitement exempted from First Amendment protection.”
The right to free speech also includes the right to exhort others to take action upon that speech, she added.
Attorney LisaBeth Klein, who represents S.B.B., told the New Jersey Monitor Wednesday she’s “still talking with my client” and hasn’t decided if he’ll appeal. She declined further comment.
Several groups that advocate against abuses in the Jewish divorce process, including the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, the Shalom Task Force, and the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, filed briefs in the case supporting L.B.B.
They said that such videos have become increasingly common as “agunot” — which means “chained women” in Hebrew — turn to technology as they fight for divorces from husbands who refuse to grant a get even when marriages have been civilly dissolved.
Advocates celebrated Wednesday’s ruling as a win for other women with recalcitrant husbands.
“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,” said L.B.B.’s attorney Jane J. Felton, who handled the case pro bono. “Of course, the same principles would apply to anyone facing any form of abuse or domestic violence.”
Felton said L.B.B. eventually did secure both a get and a civil divorce.
Keshet Starr, CEO of the New York-based Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, called get refusal “a form of domestic abuse and coercive control.” Women who can’t obtain a get are considered still married under Jewish law and so can’t remarry or date and can be ostracized in the community, Starr said.
Her group has helped women make similar videos and organized protests at the homes and workplaces of get-withholding husbands.
“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,” Starr said.
Get refusal is a “moral failure of our rabbinic leaders that must be urgently addressed,” said Daphne Lazar Price, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.
“Too many rabbis have tepid reactions to what amounts to making a mockery of Jewish law by disregarding women’s lives and freedom,” Lazar Price said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey had filed a brief in the case objecting to the trial judge’s gag order forbidding L.B.B. from posting anything on social media or otherwise talking about the case publicly.
Wednesday’s decision overturns that order and makes it clear people involved in lawsuits can talk about it, said Jeanne LoCicero, the ACLU’s legal director.
“The First Amendment and the state constitution protect all New Jerseyans who want to share their stories and ask their communities for help, whether that be on a street corner or on a video posted to social media,” LoCicero said.
The case isn’t over. Felton and other advocates are fighting to unseal the case, nearly three years after a judge ordered all filings sealed.
“It is so important for people going through this and for all survivors of abuse to have their voices heard, to have the ability to share their story as they experience it, and to be able to ask their communities for advocacy and support,” Starr said.