Why Parents in Split Families Shouldn't Lose Their First Amendment Rights To Talk to Their Children:

Many defenses of child custody decisions based on parents' speech and religion acknowledge that parents in intact families have broad rights to speak to their children free of government restraint (see PDF pages 43-53 of this article), but argue that in split families this is different. I think this is wrong, as I argued at length in my NYU article; but I thought I'd excerpt some of my arguments here, in a somewhat abridged form.

1. Surrender of Parental Rights: Some argue that parents in split families lose some of their constitutional rights: “In matters of custody, the family unit has already been dissolved, and that dissolution is accompanied by a weakening of the shield constructed against state intervention. A parent cannot flaunt the banner of religious freedom and family sanctity when he himself has abrogated that unity.”

Each parent's right to live with a child, and to control the child's upbringing, must indeed yield in some measure when the parents split up. The child can't physically be in two separate households at once; and if the parents are hostile enough to each other, they can't make joint decisions about the child's life.

But it doesn't follow that parents' First Amendment rights must likewise yield. Parents' individual rights to speak to their children (and to practice their religions by speaking to them) can still be fully exercised after the parents break up. The parent may no longer be able to rely on the sanctity of the family as a unit, but he may rely on the sanctity of his own constitutional rights. The government must intervene to some extent when a family breaks up, but there's no inherent reason that it must intervene in the parents' speech.

Nor has the parent's conduct somehow waived the right. First, child custody speech restrictions may be imposed on a parent even when the family's unity was abrogated by the other parent: The law here doesn't distinguish the leaving parent from the one who gets left.

Second, even when a parent seeks the divorce, it hardly follows that the government may require the parent to waive his constitutional rights as a condition of getting that divorce. That's true for First Amendment rights generally (or for that matter Fourth Amendment or other rights); it's presumptively equally true for First Amendment rights to speak to one's children.

2. Best Interests Above All: Child custody speech restrictions also can't be justified simply by arguing that protecting a child's best interests is so important that it trumps any First Amendment rights.

Parent-child speech is protected in intact families even when it may undermine the child's best interests. And this is so even though parental teaching of bad ideologies in intact families can sometimes be more harmful than the same speech in split families: If the parents are divorced, one parent might counteract whatever harmful ideology the other parent is teaching, or at least each parent's authority might be decreased because the parent has less time with the child. But if the parents are still together, they're more likely to teach the child the same message; the child will be even more within their ideological control; and the child's best interests would be even more hurt by the bad teachings.

Thus, proponents of child custody speech restrictions must say something more: They need to explain why the same interest that is inadequate to restrict speech in intact families becomes adequate when the family is split.

3. Need to Decide Accurately: One possible “something more” is that in split families, the judge has been called in, and some custody decision must be made. The court should therefore make the most accurate decision it can, the argument would go, by considering all the relevant evidence, including the parent's likely future speech.