Stalking and social media: Direct messaging versus public posting

At our law firm, we represent Floridians in seeking or resisting protective orders, also known as restraining orders. These are court orders called injunctions that judges use to order potentially dangerous people to take or refrain from certain actions. Restraining orders often involve allegations of domestic abuse or potential family violence.

For example, the court might order the subject to give up weapons, go to treatment, move out of a residence or take other action, or to refrain from behavior such as staying away from likely victims or not communicating via electronic means or phone.

We recently published a post that details the kinds of restraining orders available in Florida.

New case reversing an injunction against cyberstalking

On Aug. 14, the Florida District Court of Appeal in the Fourth District issued an opinion in the case of Logue v. Book, in which it reversed the lower court’s injunction for protection against stalking. The petitioner for the injunction is a “public advocate for child abuse victims … [who] promotes strict policies related to sex offenders.” The subject of the injunction is an “outspoken opponent of sex offender laws,” has a criminal record involving a minor and a prior domestic violence injunction.

One of the grounds for the trial court’s restraining order was the petitioner’s allegation of cyberstalking. She testified that she was afraid of the subject and had contacted law enforcement. Authorities took the threat seriously. The FBI investigated, and local and state law enforcement provided protection.

The subject had posted content about petitioner on social media, the subject’s website and other online platforms:

  •  Petitioner’s address and pictures of her house
  •  Music video of an obscene song that the subject tweeted “perfectly depicted” petitioner
  •  Cartoon of a tombstone with an “obscene reference” to petitioner

Injunction improper

The court acknowledged that the postings were of concern, “vulgar and distasteful” and “an intense expression of ill-will toward the appellee.” However, the Florida law allowing injunctions for protection from cyberstalking or stalking requires that the harassing conduct be directed at a specific person.

Florida courts have held that social media posts and other Internet postings do not qualify as directing the message at a particular person, like an email or text addressed to a person would. The appeals court found that the subject’s postings did not qualify as stalking because they were not directed at petitioner. Even though they “were aimed” at her, they must have been “directed to [her] — not by content, but by delivery …” to qualify for a protective order.

The court also concluded that the subject’s online expression was protected by the First Amendment as free speech, even though it was “socially abhorrent.”

This result may seem disturbing, so anyone with concerns about their own situation vis-à-vis a current or potential protective order should speak with an experienced lawyer.

(The case is not final until the court has decided whether to grant a motion for rehearing.)

 

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  • The Law Office of Daniel E. Forrest represents individuals in Fort Lauderdale in high-asset divorce matters. Daniel Forrest is board-certified family lawyer and mediator serving the South Florida area.
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