Apologize or go to jail: When family law and the First Amendment collide

Mary Zambreno Iowa Family Law Dickinson Law Firm Des Moines Iowa

Posted on 05/04/2012 at 12:42 PM by Mary Zambreno

Have we learned nothing yet about divorce-related postings on Facebook? Just DON'T do it. In June 2011, a Cincinnati man, Mark Byron, was found guilty of civil domestic violence against his wife, Elizabeth Byron.  The Court entered a temporary protective order.  Five months after the entry of the protective order, Byron posted on his Facebook wall:  “If you are an evil, vindictive woman who wants to ruin your husband's life and take your son's father away from him completely -- all you need to do is say you're scared of your husband or domestic partner and they'll take him away!" Elizabeth Byron had been blocked from seeing his posts on Facebook but her friends and friends of friends notified her of the post.  She filed a motion claiming that Byron had violated the protective order.  Byron claimed that he was just venting about his legal troubles on Facebook.  Magistrate Paul Meyers disagreed.  Judge Meyers ordered Byron to either go to jail for 60 days and pay a $500 fine or pay back child support and post an apology for 30 days.  He apparently chose the latter because this message was posted by Byron on Facebook.  Byron was apparently also required to friend his wife or someone of her choosing to monitor the page and ensure that the apology ran for the required number of days. It is quite possible that the real reason the judge almost ordered jail time in this case was not actually because of his Facebook post but because there was apparently back child support owed by Byron to his wife.  Hence, he could go to jail for 60 days (because he owed the child support perhaps in violation of a child support order) or he could pay the support that he owed and avoid being held in contempt. The public, however, has honed in on the Facebook post, with many decrying the judge’s ruling as a violation of Byron’s First Amendment rights, first by prohibiting him from making certain statements on Facebook and then by affirmatively requiring him to post the apology that he penned.  Others have opined that whenever children are involved, equity permits the court to enter certain orders that prohibit the parents from badmouthing each other to third parties. In Iowa, many Decrees of Dissolution of Marriage where joint legal custody is ordered requires the parents to “cooperate to act in a proper and mature fashion during exchanges of the child and shall not involve or expose the child to disagreements between the parties.  Neither party shall speak in a disparaging manner about the other party in front of the child and both parties shall at all times work to foster good parent-child relationships with the child toward each parent.”  In this case, while the “disparaging” statement was not uttered in front of the child, it is also arguable that such a statement made by Byron was not reflective of fostering a “good parent-child relationship” when he called his child’s mother an “evil, vindictive woman.” Either way, if you want to vent about your legal troubles, posting on Facebook perhaps isn’t the way to go.

The material in this blog is not intended, nor should it be construed or relied upon, as legal advice. Please consult with an attorney if specific legal information is needed.

Categories: Family Law, Mary Zambreno

 

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