U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

New York courts grant, then overturn prior restraint on documentary release

Incident Details

Date of Incident
February 22, 2024
New York, New York

Prior Restraint

Status of Prior Restraint
Struck down
Mistakenly Released Materials?
REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

A new A&E Television Networks documentary about former TV host Wendy Williams, pictured above at a premiere in 2019, was briefly barred from airing after a New York judge granted a temporary restraining order on Feb. 22, 2024.

— REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
February 22, 2024

A&E Television Networks was briefly barred from distributing its new documentary, “Where Is Wendy Williams?”, after a New York justice granted a temporary restraining order against the company on Feb. 22, 2024. The order was reversed the following day.

According to court filings reviewed by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, A&E worked with former TV host Williams and her family to chronicle her life for nearly two years following the end of her talk show, including her subsequent health issues and placement under guardianship. Williams is credited as an executive producer on the documentary.

A trailer for the four-episode documentary aired on Feb. 2. Nearly three weeks later, Williams’ court-appointed guardian, Sabrina Morrissey, filed a lawsuit against A&E seeking a temporary restraining order to halt its planned release and requesting that the case proceed under seal. A New York Supreme Court justice granted both requests on Feb. 22 without providing A&E the opportunity to argue against them.

Morrissey argued that Williams — who has been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia and aphasia — was not competent to sign a talent agreement with producer Entertainment One and that the documentary was exploitative and could permanently damage Williams’ reputation.

The order forbade A&E from releasing the documentary or any further footage, trailers, dialogue or communications to anyone other than Morrissey or their respective attorneys without court approval.

An attorney representing A&E filed an appeal with the Appellate Division of the court the following day, arguing that the restraining order constituted a prior restraint and that Morrissey sought to prevent the airing of criticisms of her and the guardianship process.

“At a time when guardianship proceedings are being debated in our own State legislature and through headlines across the nation, the Order impermissibly gags Defendants from publishing speech that is unquestionably a matter of public concern,” attorney Rachel Strom wrote. She added that the restraint also deprived Williams and her family of “their right to speak out about her experiences, including and especially to criticize her care and treatment under a guardianship regime—the same regime which seeks to silence her now.”

Strom argued that Williams, her family and her manager were actively involved in the production of the documentary and that Morrissey had been aware of the documentary for more than a year. She also noted that, without an emergency reversal, A&E would be unable to proceed with the documentary’s planned release on Feb. 24, at great financial and reputational cost.

Appellate Justice Peter Moulton lifted the restraining order on Feb. 23, writing in a decision that was briefly made public that the restraining order was “an impermissible prior restraint on speech that violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.” Moulton, however, upheld the decision to keep the court proceedings under seal.

The documentary was released on A&E’s Lifetime channel as planned on Feb. 24 and 25, but the lawsuit remains ongoing.

Attorneys for Morrissey and A&E did not respond to requests for comment.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].