Category: First Amendment

Free Speech and Domestic Violence

In family law, when a cyberstalking complaint consists of social media posts, free speech and domestic violence can clash. In a recent case, a domestic violence court prohibited one Florida lawyer’s social media comments about the other lawyers in her case.

Cyberstalking

Injunction Junction

Florida lawyer Ashley Krapacs filed a petition for a domestic violence injunction against her ex-boyfriend and represented herself at the DV hearing. Attorney Russel J. Williams represented her Ex.

After Krapac lost the hearing, on jurisdictional grounds, she wrote an article about the opposing lawyer, saying that he lied to the judge on the record during these proceedings. As a result, Williams hired his own attorney, Nisha Bacchus, to sue Krapacs for defamation.

Krapacs responded by writing several social media posts disparaging the new lawyer, Bacchus, with personal insults for representing Williams in the defamation suit against her.

Then Krapacs created a blog post which claimed Bacchus filed a frivolous lawsuit against her, accused her of being a bully, and included a vulgar insult. She tagged Bacchus in more posts and hurled insults at Bacchus and her law firm and identified the car Bacchus drove.

In one of her final Facebook posts, Krapacs stated she was going to connect with Bacchus’s former clients to sue her for malpractice. Bacchus sought to stop this by filing a petition for an injunction, alleging Krapacs was cyberstalking her.

The DV judge entered the injunction and limited Krapacs’ use of her office space since both Krapacs and Bacchus had offices in the same building. The judge also prohibited Krapacs from posting on social media about Bacchus and ordered her to take down all the offending posts about Bacchus.

Krapacs appealed.

Family Law and Free Speech

I’ve written about free speech in family law before. Family courts have a lot of power to protect children, and that can involve restraints on free speech. Speech can be enjoined under our domestic violence laws.

Domestic violence injunctions prohibiting free speech are subject to constitutional challenge because they put the government’s weight behind that prohibition: a judge orders it, and the police enforce it.

Florida, the term “domestic violence” has a very specific meaning, and it is more inclusive than most people realize. It means any assault, aggravated assault, battery, aggravated battery, sexual assault, sexual battery, stalking, aggravated stalking, kidnapping, false imprisonment, or any criminal offense resulting in physical injury or death of one family or household member by another family or household member.

Domestic violence can also mean cyberstalking. Cyberstalking is harassment via electronic communications. A person who willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows, harasses, or cyberstalks another person and makes a credible threat to that person commits the offense of aggravated stalking, a felony of the third degree.

A credible threat means a verbal or nonverbal threat, or a combination of the two, including threats delivered by electronic communication or implied by a pattern of conduct, which places the person who is the target of the threat in reasonable fear for his or her safety or the safety of his or her family members or individuals closely associated with the person, and which is made with the apparent ability to carry out the threat to cause such harm.

Cyberstalking and Free Speech

The appellate court felt Krapacs’ actions did not qualify as cyberstalking because they did not constitute a pattern of conduct composed of a series of acts over time evidencing a continuity of purpose.

Retagging in social media posts for four hours constituted, in the court’s view, one instance of qualifying conduct under the statute. The other acts Bacchus complained of were deemed to be constitutionally protected and did not qualify as additional instances of repeated stalking.

The court also found that the injunction prohibiting Krapacs “from posting Nisha Bacchus, Nisha Elizabeth Bacchus or any part thereof, on any social media or internet websites, and requiring her to take down all social media and internet posts that reference Nisha Bacchus was overbroad.

While the appellate court held that her comments could not be subject to an injunction, it did find that Krapacs was not immune from civil liability for her actions and could face money damages.

Then there’s the Florida Bar, which then filed an emergency suspension petition against Krapacs. The Bar viewed her social media tweets, posts and comments as arising out of the opposing lawyers’ representation of clients who were litigating against her.

The Bar called Krapacs strategy “terrorist legal tactics” and felt it was prejudicial to the administration of justice.

After a hearing, the referee recommended a two-year suspension from the Florida Bar. The Florida Supreme Court reviewed the case, disapproved of the two-year suspension, and instead disbarred her.

The opinion is here.

 

Free Speech and Family Law Clash

Free speech and family law clash again, as a Florida appellate court rules on just how far a judge can go in restraining an online stalker of a politician. Like the plot of Tiger King gone wrong, a Broward state senator filed an injunction against a convicted sex offender who also happens to be a public advocate on behalf of registered sex offenders.

Free Speech Family Law

Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin Redux

Lauren Frances Book is a Florida State Senator who also runs a non-profit called “Lauren’s Kids” to assist survivors of sexual abuse and to prevent its occurrence. Because of her own childhood experience as a victim, she has been an advocate for laws that support and maintain sex offender registries, and place residency restrictions on convicted offenders.

Derek Logue, like the senator, is also a public figure of sorts. After he was convicted of sexually assaulting an 11-year-old girl in 2001, he co-founded what is described as the Anti-Registry Movement – which opposes sex offender laws.

Channeling “Joe Exotic” and “Carol Baskin”, Logue travels to, organizes, and participates in various demonstrations and counter-demonstrations around the nation opposing the type of sex offender laws for which the senator advocates. He also has Facebook and Twitter accounts and internet websites. One website is “Floridians for Freedom: Ron and Lauren Book Exposed.”

Sen. Book has complained about Logue’s online comments:

“I think I found the official Laura Ahearn/ Lauren Book theme song” next to a link to a YouTube video for a song titled, “You Are A C—,” by Australian singer and comedian Kat McSnatch:

“Why don’t you shut that scabby c— mouth before I f— up your face.” The crude video also features an image of a tombstone that reads, “R.I.P. Annoying C—.”

On his website as well as other social media platforms he uploaded a picture of the senator’s home along with her address; a video for a song containing an obscene title, with lyrics that are “Not Safe For Work” posted on his Twitter page and a cartoon depicting a headstone with a vulgar insult and the phrase, “Died of Natural Causes.”

Sen. Book filed an injunction claiming she fears for her and her family’s safety following physical threats Logue allegedly made against her online and in person during two public events in 2015 and 2016. She wants to keep him from coming within 500 feet of her home and her offices.

The trial court granted the injunction without identifying which of the various occurrences supported it.

Florida Free Speech and Family Law

I’ve written about free speech in family cases before. Family courts have a lot of power to protect children, and that can involve restraints on free speech. Speech can also be enjoined under our domestic violence laws. In Florida, the term “domestic violence” has a very specific meaning, and it is more inclusive than most people realize.

It means any assault, aggravated assault, battery, aggravated battery, sexual assault, sexual battery, stalking, aggravated stalking, kidnapping, false imprisonment, or any criminal offense resulting in physical injury or death of one family or household member by another family or household member.

It can also mean cyberstalking. A person who willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows, harasses, or cyberstalks another person and makes a credible threat to that person commits the offense of aggravated stalking, a felony of the third degree.

A credible threat means a verbal or nonverbal threat, or a combination of the two, including threats delivered by electronic communication or implied by a pattern of conduct, which places the person who is the target of the threat in reasonable fear for his or her safety or the safety of his or her family members or individuals closely associated with the person, and which is made with the apparent ability to carry out the threat to cause such harm.

Tiger King 2

Logue appealed, saying his actions served a legitimate purpose advocating against legislation affecting sex offenders, his social media posts don’t constitute “a course of conduct directed at a specific person” and the senator’s subjective fear does not satisfy the objective “reasonable person” standard required by the statute.

The court found that here, although the posting of the vulgar song may have been directed at the senator, and was certainly intended to be insulting, it was not credibly or objectively threatening. Even if it were, an injunction is not the appropriate remedy.

The case presented an issue that goes to the foundation of our country— freedom of expression under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. While the senator was irritated by Logue’s actions, the Constitution protects the right of the political irritant to voice his opinions as much as it protects any citizen’s right to do so.

Publicly expressing anger toward an elected official is not a basis for entry of an injunction. In public debate, elected officials must tolerate insulting remarks—even angry, outrageous speech—to provide breathing room for the First Amendment.

Courts have acknowledged that what may be actionable in the context of interactions between private individuals are viewed differently in the context of political debate by public actors. Because the senator is a public figure and not a private citizen what constitutes harassment, credible threats, or even defamation against her is different.

The opinion is available here.