We recently wrote that postings, pictures and other data from social media sites like Facebook are increasingly being used as evidence in divorce and child custody proceedings. We even shared several examples of how this evidence was being used in cases here in Pennsylvania.
But attorneys are also noticing other social media behaviors that may have an impact on family law proceedings. Namely, angry individuals are getting themselves into trouble for publicly badmouthing their estranged or ex-spouse on Facebook.
In one recent case from Ohio, a man angrily posted his opinions about his estranged wife and details about their divorce and child custody situation that he considered to be unfair. She had previously been granted a civil protective order that required him to stay away from her.
He posted that this was a plot to keep him from seeing their young son, and he accused his wife of being a "vindictive woman who wants to ruin [her] husband's life."
The woman learned of the Facebook posting and felt that it violated certain terms of the protective order. A judge agreed and held the husband in contempt of court. The judge then issued an ultimatum: he could either spend 60 days in jail, or pay his wife's lawyers' fees and back child support as well as post an apology on Facebook that must stay up for 30 days.
He chose the apology.
This controversial ruling has raised serious concerns among members of the legal community and civil-rights advocacy groups. An attorney and free-speech expert commented on the case, saying: "The idea that a court can say, 'I order you not to post something or to post something' seems to me to be a First Amendment issue."
The internet and social media have given the average person a much wider platform to express their personal opinions. But is badmouthing an estranged or ex-spouse on Facebook fundamentally different than doing so verbally to friends and family?
Should courts be allowed to limit free speech during potentially volatile family law cases? These are difficult questions which may be debated - legally and morally - for years to come.
Source: USA Today, "Ex-husband gets choice of jail or a Facebook apology," Kimball Perry, Feb. 23, 2012