Do not confuse Facebook with the corner bar, especially when your estranged wife has a protection order against you.
That’s a lesson Mark Byron learned the hard way, after venting about his impending divorce 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 that you’re scared of your husband or domestic partner and they’ll take him away!”
Ill-advised? Probably. Worth 60 days in jail and a $500 (U.S.) fine? For Mr. Byron, the answer was an unexpected yes, when a U.S. magistrate found him in contempt of a temporary restraining order that prohibited him from “from causing plaintiff or the child of the parties to suffer physical and/or mental abuse, harassment, annoyance or bodily injury.”
Magistrate Paul Meyers also offered the Cincinnati photographer a creative alternative that has left legal experts, free-speech advocates and message boards buzzing. Mr. Byron could avoid the slammer by posting a court-written apology on his Facebook page for 30 days and pay $1,156 in back child support, as well as cover Elizabeth Byron’s legal fees connected with the Facebook issue.
While Mr. Byron chose the cybercontrition option, he also went public this week about what appears to a troubling precedent in the intersection between freedom of speech, parental rights and cyberdefamation.
“I’m afraid to say anything any more,” said Mr. Bryon, who had blocked his wife from his Facebook page and didn’t mention her by name in the offending post. “I liken it to having a drink in a bar with a friend and telling them how I feel,” he told a Cincinnati television station. “On Facebook, you do it on a larger scale, and people interested can say something about it, but if they are not interested, they don’t.”
But it’s not that the magistrate found that Mr. Byron’s comments defamed his wife, Toronto-based media and defamation lawyer Michael C. Smith says, but rather that they were in violation of the broad terms of the protection order, which had been issued after Mr. Byron was found guilty in June of civil domestic violence. “Any lawyer would strongly caution against someone in this situation making such statements,” says Mr. Smith, a partner with Borden Ladner Gervais. “But the general public doesn’t view social media through the lens of a lawyer.”
Until the courts on both sides of the border set precedents as to the predictable legal consequences of social media, that lens will remain cloudy. “If you ask any lawyer, they’ll tell you these issues are rampant, but they tend to get resolved before they make it to trial,” Mr. Smith says, pointing out that domestic disputes have spilled over from the living room to cyberspace. “Until we have some key fundamental questions answered by the courts, it will remain the wild, wild west out there.”
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