Facebook Prosecution: Two judges, two family feuds, two decisions

Originally posted February 27, 2012 as part of a blogging assignment for my post-graduate program. I’ve decided to redirect all posts to here to keep things consistent.

Now that Facebook as a wide-spread tool for connecting in the 21st Century, personal matters are becoming public on the world’s largest social network. In my personal experience, in University I found myself in a Facebook faux-pas when a boyfriend and I broke up. It was absolutely final and in my mopey-ness, I proceeded to remove our relationship a few hours after the breakup (maybe 6 hours later). The next week I found myself pounced upon by one of his friends for being “indifferent” and uncaring because I removed it so fast, when in reality, he broke up with me. While I wasn’t harassed further, I learned some nebulous implications of a personal relationship turned public and since then, my current partner of 5 years and I have no formal Facebook ‘relationship’ preferring to show our affection in person. But relationship incidents are on the rise on the platform and here are two examples that are ending in litigation.

In Cincinnati, Mark Edward Byron, a man under a restraining order against his wife for a domestic violence charge, was charged in contempt of his restraining order and ordered to pay his wife over $1,100. The crime? Calling her out, swearing about her and defaming her character on Facebook to their mutual friends. The judge also offered an alternative punishment, which would have Byron offering an apology every day for thirty days to his estranged wife on Facebook.

In Minnesota, Randall LaBrie was not charged in online harassment of his nephew Aaron Olson on Facebook. Olson charged that LaBrie posted old family photos of him with “vulgar and coercive statements” attached to them and would cause “substantial hardship” for Olson. The court dismissed the case, ruling the photos were innocuous and could not be the basis of harassment and that the comments were not damaging.

So what happened here?

It’s obvious that in Byron’s case, he had a history of causing grief and harm to his wife and had been put under a restraining order for it. Part of his restraining order was to never cause harass or annoy her, something he obviously ignored when he began his tirade online. Also, Byron was falsely claiming that his wife was not obeying their custody agreement, but the court discovered that it was Byron himself who had been missing the visitations. In this case, Facebook was merely the vessel for more harassment, whether it was this social media platform or Twitter or email, he would have been in contempt due to his previous charge.

In LaBrie’s case, he and Olson had a history of family disagreements. Olson’s petition against his uncle also included a request for a restraining order and some confusing testimony about the timeline of events. The way his case was presented made it seem that the mere fact that LaBrie had posted the photos at all were enough for Olson to become upset, regardless of the captions. Olson was upset that somebody else could upload photos of him and comment and that he couldn’t control whether the images were on Facebook or not. He claimed that the visibility of the photos was negatively impacting his life, a claim that was cleanly dismissed by the court.

So what can we learn from this?

Judges are beginning to sift through the muddle that is caused when personal interactions become public using social media, especially Facebook, the biggest threat. We should expect inconsistencies in rulings but in these two instances I think they were judged fairly. Byron has already been charged and the eye of the law is upon him to prevent any more harm to his wife and LaBrie’s nephew Olson seemed to be using the law to prove a point and to settle hurt feelings. The rulings are fair in either case so this is a good sign for future cases.

On a side note…

Byron seems to have disregarded the judge’s verdict and has publicly tweeted his displeasure about the ruling. I’m assuming this means he doesn’t agree with the social media punishment he’s been delivered, but the Huffington Post says he’s cooperating. His attempts to tie in his behaviour to free speech activism is a bit disturbing considering his history (domestic abusers being manipulators who often try to drag their spouses through the mud to lower their reputation or ‘worth’ in others eyes). This is something I’m going to tackle in another post, the fact that anybody can be public and available due to social media to respond to any perception of their behaviour. Whether it’s Chris Brown or this guy, everybody has a voice on social media. For better and for worse.

Judge orders man to apologize to wife on Facebook. – Daily Dot
Minnesota man files harassment charges against uncle over Facebook photos. – Daily Dot

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