Jamie Dantzscher: Gag order may deter others from coming forward

U.S. Olympic medalist Jamie Dantzscher is speaking out this week against a court-issued gag order that could prevent her and other women who claim they were sexually assaulted by Larry Nassar from sharing their stories.

Dantzscher was one of the first women to file a civil lawsuit alleging that Nassar, the former U.S. Gymnastics and Michigan State team doctor, assaulted her while seeing her for athletic injuries. She filed the suit in September and has told her story publicly several times.

Since then more than 90 other women have filed suits against Nassar, and more than 100 women have spoken to police about his conduct. She said she's concerned a gag order could prevent others from coming forward.

"There's no way, if we didn't get to speak publicly about this, there's no way all these women would have come forward, possibly ever," Dantzscher said Thursday evening. "It seems wrong on all levels to me."

The order in question was issued last week by Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina. It says that anyone listed as a potential witness during an upcoming criminal trial for Nassar is not allowed to publicly discuss their feelings about the case or their stories beyond the exact language of what they shared in court documents.

Several attorneys representing women in civil suits against Nassar are concerned they and their clients will be added as potential witnesses for the criminal trial for the sole purpose of preventing them from speaking up. They say they believe the order is an infringement on their freedom of speech.

Shannon Smith and Matt Newburg, Nassar's defense team, originally requested a gag order in March, stating the media coverage of his story has "eviscerated Nassar's ability to have a fair trial and have trampled on his due process rights."

An initial gag order issued by Judge Aquilina on March 29 was stopped via a restraining order in U.S. district court a week later for being too broad. Aquilina issued a revised order five days later, and Dantzscher's lawyers have since filed a motion to have the district court review the new gag order in hopes that it will be overruled as well.

Aquilina's daughter, Jen Davis, started a new job as a public relations director at Michigan State this week. She first applied for the job in October, before charges against Nassar were filed. Aquilina and both legal teams connected to the upcoming criminal trial agreed that Davis' job was not a significant conflict of interest for Aquilina. Dantzscher disagreed.

"I have to question the motive," Dantzscher said. "What if it happened to her daughter? Would she still have this gag order if her daughter was one of the first survivors? I can't really make sense of it.

"It didn't sit right. It didn't seem fair at all to put the gag order. To find that out [that Aquilina's daughter was a Michigan State employee], it was like the only thing that made sense to why she ordered it."

Dantzscher has claimed that Nassar first started abusing her in 1994. She said she didn't know for certain that what he was doing was wrong until she spoke to former teammates and others in the gymnastics community about him in July 2016 and discovered others had a similar experience.

Most of the women who have filed suit against Nassar say he used his fingers to penetrate them vaginally without medical gloves. Many of them have said they didn't realize they had been abused until others started speaking about their experiences publicly this past fall.

Dantzscher said speaking out was empowering and helped her begin a healing process. She said she's afraid that taking away the ability to talk about what happened will scare away others who have yet to come forward.

"I felt like we had made so much progress and people are starting to listen and women are coming forward," she said. "We were starting to make change. To have it taken away in a second -- I was shocked."

The prospect of losing control is a factor that keeps many victims of sexual assault from speaking up, according to Scott Berkowitz, the founder of anti-sexual violence organization RAINN. Berkowitz said a gag order on a case with this profile has the potential to undo years of work that advocates like his organization have done to convince survivors of sexual crimes it's safe to talk about what happened.

"I can't recall a case that took such a big step to silence victims," Berkowitz said. "I think it's a terrible thing. These people deserve the right to speak truthfully about what happened to them."

John Manly, the attorney who represents Dantzscher and has worked on other high-profile sexual abuse cases involving schools and the Catholic church, said a gag order in this type of case is unprecedented in his experience. Manly said the order as written does "a terrible disservice to victims." He's also concerned the current order prohibits those who are listed from speaking out until after the trial and all possible appeals are finished.

"That could be 10 or 15 years," Manly said. "It's important to understand that child sex abuse silence is based on, primarily, shame. When you tell victims they can't speak, it's profoundly damaging. When victims speak about their abuse, it's like spitting out poison."

U.S. District Judge Janet Neff, who temporarily restrained the first gag order, has asked Aquilina and Nassar's attorneys to respond to the revised version's challenge from Manly & Co. by May 2.