(CN) – Gymnasts who say they were sexually abused by former USA Gymnastics physician Larry Nassar sued to block a gag order in his criminal case preventing them from talking about their civil claims against him.
Rachel Denhollander, Lindsey Lemke, Jamie Dantzscher and about 80 other gymnasts sued Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie E. Aquilina in Western Michigan federal court on Tuesday.
Aquilina issued the gag order March 29 in the criminal case against Nassar, who was initially charged with three counts of criminal sexual conduct with a person under 13 and possession of child pornography.
Nassar is also a defendant in Tuesday’s lawsuit, along with Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who charged Nassar in February with an additional 22 counts of sexual assault against nine alleged victims.
“The plaintiff victims have largely alleged that Nassar digitally penetrated their vaginas, and in some cases, their anuses, without the use of gloves and without their consent under the guise of medical treatment,” the complaint states. The gymnasts say the alleged assaults occurred between 1996 and 2016, when Nassar was fired.
Aquilina granted Nassar’s motion for the gag order, which the plaintiffs claim sought “to essentially silence all of Nassar’s victims and their attorneys from discussing any aspect of their sexual abuse, trampling their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and expression.”
The gymnasts added that their speech consists of “matters of public importance, as they touch on matters of sexual abuse and the safety of children who participate in youth-oriented sports.”
They also claim that their due process rights were denied because they “lacked notice and an opportunity to be heard” prior to the issuance of the gag order.
Three law firms representing the gymnasts are also plaintiffs in the gag order challenge. They are the Michigan-based White Law PLLC and Drew, Cooper and Anding PC, as well as the California firm Manly, Stewart and Finaldi PC.
The law firms stated that several gymnasts have called them, fearing that they will be “thrown in jail or otherwise punished if they come forward publicly.”
The gymnasts and law firms asked for declaratory and injunctive relief against the gag order, arguing neither Aquilina nor Schuette are protected by immunity.
“Schuette and Nassar, as the parties in People v. Nassar, have standing to enforce the gag order,” the gymnasts stated. “Plaintiffs believe that Nassar and/or Schuette will seek to hold them in contempt for any violations of the gag order.”
The gymnasts say they are all potential witnesses in Nassar’s criminal trial and “the actual scope of the gag order is vague and staggering in breadth.”
Denhollander and Lemke have come forward as alleged victims of Nassar, and Dantzscher testified in front of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on March 28. The topic of the Senate hearing was a proposed bill that would require federal sports organizations to report suspicions of child abuse.
While challenging the gag order’s effect on their rights to freedom of speech, the gymnasts claim the order is not specific enough.
“The gag order is not explicit and instead addresses prohibited conduct in general terms, making it difficult to determine which conduct is allowed and which conduct is proscribed,” the lawsuit states.
Denhollander and 17 other gymnasts sued USA Gymnastics, Nassar and Michigan State University in January over the alleged sexual assaults.
The Indianapolis Star has reported that as many as 30 people have filed civil or criminal charges against Nassar or otherwise accused him of abuse. USA Gymnastics is based in Indianapolis, and the Star has run a series of stories on the growing scandal.
Attorneys Stephen R. Drew, James White and John C. Manly of the three plaintiff law firms are representing the gymnasts in the gag-order lawsuit.