A few weeks ago our Santa Rosa divorce lawyer provided some recommendations on how clients can safeguard their online identities in order to protect themselves during turbulent divorces. Recently, an Ohio man learned firsthand how big a role Facebook can play in these difficult cases. The husband, Mark, and his wife, Elizabeth, were involved in an acrimonious divorce, child custody, and visitation case last year. They have one child together, a son, and the custody dispute has involved a great deal of emotional turmoil for both parents. Elizabeth had also lodged allegations of threats and abuse against her husband.
Even more trouble arose when Mark decided to use his Facebook page as an outlet for his hostile feelings towards Elizabeth. According to a USA Today article, Mark posted a comment to his page that said, among other things, "...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." Even though Mark had taken steps to keep his page private from his wife, she found out about the post anyway, probably through a mutual friend with access to Mark's profile.
When Elizabeth discovered what he had written, she called her attorney, who brought the matter to the court's attention. Due to Elizabeth's accusations of abuse, the domestic relations magistrate had previously granted her protection by ordering her soon-to-be ex to refrain from any activity that would cause his wife to experience physical or mental abuse. The magistrate determined that the Facebook rant was a violation of that order and found Mark in contempt of court. The magistrate judge told Mark that he could either post an apology or spend the next 60 days in jail. Not surprisingly, Mark chose the first option.
Our Santa Rosa divorce lawyers appreciate that this particular ruling has garnered a fair amount of media attention in the last few weeks. Attorneys and other advocates around the country have contributed to the debate over whether or not judges and magistrates should be able to threaten people with jail for what many say is a protected form of expression under the First Amendment. The husband's attorney argued that by posting online, Mark was merely expressing himself and that his comments were not intended to cause Elizabeth any distress. In fact, Mark thought that his wife would not be able to see the comments because he had removed her as a "friend" on Facebook and blocked her from seeing his profile.
Each Northern California family law attorney at our firm appreciates that disagreement about the appropriate balance between free speech principles and effects on divorce will continue to rage in the coming years. In any event, the story demonstrates how essential it is to not only protect your social media profiles during a divorce but also to take the time to think before posting anything derogatory about your spouse. All too often, especially in cases that involve intense emotion and conflict, internet posts can come back to haunt a spouse with severe (and unwanted) consequences.
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