Attorneys argue over ads targeting Boy Scouts abuse victims

DOVER, Del. (AP) — The judge overseeing the Boy Scouts of America bankruptcy is mulling a request to address what attorneys for the BSA claim are misleading and confusing advertisements from law firms trying to solicit business from survivors of child sexual abuse.

A hearing on a motion by the Boy Scouts to put restrictions on the ads began Monday, the same day the organization began its own court-approved media campaign targeting potential abuse victims with print, television, radio and online advertisements. The campaign runs through Oct. 17.

The Boy Scouts say the notification program is expected to reach some 110 million people, including more than 95% of the primary target audience of men age 50 and older.

But BSA attorneys said in court papers filed last week that some law firms have engaged in their own advertising campaigns seeking to solicit sexual abuse victims. They contend some of the ads contain false and misleading information, including suggestions that victims need to contact a lawyer to file a claim form, and that they can do so anonymously. The Boys Scouts also take exception to suggestions that financial compensation for abuse victims is both “ensured” and “significant” or “substantial,” and that a victims compensation fund possibly worth more than $1.5 billion is being set up.

Judge Laurie Selber Silverstein declined Monday to approve a proposed order submitted by the Boy Scouts to restrict the ads, saying it was “incredibly broad” and raised concerns about First Amendment issues.

“I need to understand how I can prohibit this type of speech,” said the judge. She continued the hearing until Sept. 9 and will accept additional submissions from attorneys through Friday.

Among other things, Silverstein wondered whether she would have the authority to require attorneys to include information about the official claims website and telephone number in their advertisements.

“I’m not downplaying the significance of the concerns, but of course that’s juxtaposed against the rights of attorneys to advertise,” she said.

Boy Scouts attorney Jessica Boelter pointed out that there were no objections to the notification and claims process, which was approved by Silverstein after hours of review by members of the official committee of abuse survivors.

“They wanted to ensure that survivors like them could understand the notices, understand the form, and complete the form without the aid of an attorney,” she explained.

Boelter said the law firms involved in a group calling itself the Coalition of Abused Scouts for Justice have “anointed” themselves the gatekeepers of claims. But she noted they have no fiduciary duty to all claimants, unlike attorneys for the official committee of abuse survivors, and are not official agents of the court.

“They’re essentially commercial parties who are taking phone calls and making legal determinations on the validity of claims, including whether they should be submitted against the debtor’s bankruptcy estate, based on their own compensation incentive,” she said.

The Boy Scouts of America, based in Irving, Texas, sought bankruptcy protection in February bidding to halt hundreds of individual lawsuits and create a huge compensation fund for men who were molested as youngsters decades ago by scoutmasters or other leaders.

The judge has established a Nov. 16 deadline for victims of child sex abuse to file claims in the bankruptcy case.

Sunni Belville, a coalition attorney, said it represents abuse survivors who share “a common story” and an interest in seeing a fair and equitable bankruptcy process, and who have the right to receive information from various sources and hire their own attorneys.

“We believe that it is important for the sexual abuse survivors to hear unfiltered communication as to the issues in this bankruptcy,” added Belville.

Belville argued that the Boy Scouts have failed to show that any of the ads meet the legal standard of speech that can be restricted because it represents a “clear and present danger” to court proceedings.

“The debtors, and certainly the insurers, would prefer there not be a large and active body of sexual abuse creditors. ... Their goal here is to minimize the number of claims,” she said.

Boelter, attorney for the Boy Scouts, said allegations that the BSA was targeting the law firm ads because it wants to limit the number of sexual abuse claims were “false.”

Silverstein also expressed skepticism that the Boy Scouts were trying to squelch claims. She pointed to concerns that the law firm ads direct people to phone numbers and websites other than those for the official claims agent.

“What about the concerns that some of the claimants will call the 800 numbers that are listed in these advertisements and believe they’ve actually filed a proof of claim and believe that their claim has been registered appropriately with the claims agent, but it in fact hasn’t because they’ve called an attorney advertising number?” she asked. “Is that a governmental interest that I can protect?”