Free Speech and the Stark’s Divorce

Pity the Starks of the North. As if the Red Wedding wasn’t enough, now they filed for divorce. To keep things calm, the divorce court restrained them from harassing, abusing, or making disparaging remarks about the other in front of their children and employers. Then things went south.

Winter is Coming

After a five-year marriage, Pamela Stark filed for divorce from her husband, Joe Stark. She is an attorney (formerly a prosecutor) and filed her complaint pro se. He is a sergeant with the Memphis Police Department.

Pamela’s email to the town mayor claimed she was a victim of domestic violence by Joe and a victim of misconduct by the entire Police Department in the handling of her investigation.

She named her husband by name and rank and described her version of the physical altercation between them and the events that followed. Pam asked the mayor in an email to “look into this before it goes further.”

Pamela also wrote the following in a Facebook post:

I speak now as a recent victim of domestic violence at the hands of a Memphis Police Officer. I can attest to how wide the thin blue line can get . . . However it is even more devastating. Who do you turn to when those worn to serve and protect and enforce the law, don’t.

Joe asked the divorce court to order the Facebook post removed, arguing “that such dissemination of these allegations could cause immediate irreparable harm to his reputation and employment” because he and Pam have mutual friends on Facebook. The judge agreed.

Florida Divorce and Free Speech

I’ve written about free speech in family cases before. Family courts have a lot of power to protect children in custody cases. Florida courts have to balance a parent’s right of free expression against the state’s interest in assuring the well-being of minor children.

In one Florida case, a judge prohibited a parent from speaking Spanish to a child. The Mother was Venezuelan, and because the Father did not speak Spanish, the court ordered: “Under no circumstances shall the Mother speak Spanish to the child.”

In the Florida case, the judge was concerned about the Mother’s comments, after the Mother “whisked” the child away from the time-sharing supervisor in an earlier incident and had a “private” conversation with her in a public bathroom. She was also bipolar and convicted of two crimes.

An appellate court reversed the restriction. Ordering a parent not to speak Spanish violates the freedom of speech and right to privacy. Florida law tries to balance the burden placed on the right of free expression essential to the furtherance of the state’s interests in promoting the best interests of children.

In other words, in that balancing act, the best interests of children can be a compelling state interest justifying a restraint of a parent’s right of free speech.

Chilling Speech

Joe testified that his co-workers at the police department saw Pam’s Facebook post, that they have many mutual friends on social media, and that a special prosecutor from another city was appointed to conduct an investigation regarding the alleged incident of domestic violence involving him and Pam.

The trial court ordered that the post be removed:

  • The Court: Ms. Stark, please stand. Are you going to comply with this Court’s orders?
  • Ms. Stark: No, I’m not.
  • The Court: All right. I’m making a finding that you are in direct contempt of court by willfully refusing to comply with this Court’s orders. You will be held held in custody until such time that you decide that you want to change your position and you apologize to this Court.

Pam at first refused to take down the post, but was jailed for four hours and then did. Pam appealed the contempt order. However, the divorce case in which the restraining order was entered was still pending.

Because she appealed from the contempt order, she was limited in her ability to raise issues, and when Pam took down the Facebook post, the contempt issue became moot.

The Reason article is here.

 

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