In February, we reported about an Ohio man who had been ordered by a judge to post an apology to his estranged wife on Facebook. Mark Byron had been charged with and found guilty of civil domestic violence against his wife, Elizabeth Byron in June 2011. Elizabeth was granted a temporary protection order and primary custody of their son. Mark was allowed supervised visits with their son twice a week. He has appealed that conviction, and the appeal is still processing.
But, in November, Byron had posted on his Facebook wall:
“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 and they’ll take him away!"
His estranged wife maintained that his statement had violated the restraining order on him, and a judge agreed. He sentenced Byron to jail time, but offered that the jail time could be avoided if Byron posted a court-penned apology to his Facebook wall every day for 30 days.
“I would like to apologize to my wife, Elizabeth Byron, for the comments regarding her and our son [name withheld] which were posted on my Facebook wall on or about November 23, 2011. I hereby acknowledge that two judicial officials in the Hamilton County Domestic Relations court have heard evidence and determined that I committed an act of domestic violence against Elizabeth in January 17, 2011. While that determination is currently being appealed, it has not been overturned by the appellate court. As a result of that determination, I was granted supervised parenting time with [our son] on a twice weekly basis. The reason I saw [our son] only one time during the four month period which ended about the time of my Facebook posting was because I chose to see him on only that single occasion during that period. I hereby apologize to Elizabeth for casting her in an unfavorable light by suggesting that she withheld from me or that she in any manner prevented me from seeing [our son] during that period. That decision was mine and mine alone.
I further apologize to all my Facebook Friends for attempting to mislead them into thinking that Elizabeth was in any manner preventing me from spending time with [our son], which caused several of my Facebook Friends to respond with angry, venomous, and inflammatory comments of their own.”
The move raised all kinds of First Amendment issues as it could be considered forced speech. But, Byron was in no position to fight it. He began posting the apology daily. Then, 26 days into the required 30, he stopped.
Byron had begun trying to raise funds to mount a defense of his free speech rights. He started a project on Go Fund Me, but it did not meet his fundraising goal. But, he stopped posting the court-ordered apology anyway. Perhaps the judge did not want to see a drawn-out First Amendment battle that could cause more trouble than it was worth. He ordered that the 26 days was long enough and let the matter drop.
Judge Sieve decided that even though I took a stand for FREE SPEECH - and stopped publishing the court ordered apology early.. that the time that I did post was sufficient to purge the order. The next step will be to win the appeal at the 1st district level.
In a letter to the editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer regarding the case, reader Allen Williams wrote:
Hamilton County has become the international focus of free speech activists, and rightly so. Magistrates and Judges have forced, under threat of jail, a citizen to speak what he otherwise would not. The man in question is involved in a contentious divorce. The wife claims domestic violence yet a criminal court found the man innocent. Subsequently the man makes innocuous statements without the threat of violence and his wife claims harassment even though she is barred from reading the statement.
The result was the violation of the man’s First Amendment right to free speech (and against forced speech) when he was ordered to publicly post (for 30 days) an apology on Facebook. Adding insult to injury the judge now tells the man that “There is certain monetary interest to be served in this media exploitation.” Judge Sieve, if you cause the cause – you cause the effect. Let’s hope the county doesn’t have to write a large check to fix this blunder.
Williams' sentiments reflect many others who have posted on Byron's Facebook wall:
"The U.S. Constitution, it appears, is just a mere suggestion in Family Court . . ."
"I don't know the details of your case...what I do know is that your freedom of speech and expression have been robbed."
"Your's may be a case cited for years to come as the courts continue to try and take what little rights we still have left away."
"I hope you win your appeal and the judge apologizes to YOU!"
"Keep fighting the good fight and don't let anyone take your fundamental freedoms away. None of us should be censored for personal feelings simply based on an oppressive government attitude requiring its citizens to engage in "groupthink." "
"I do not understand how a judge could possibly think that this so called "crime" needs a punishment. I believe the judge needs to go back to school."
"No court has the right or the ability to force someone to say something they don't mean."
"Keep posting that apology because once you read it, it is evident that isn't a typical apology from the heart. It has a very " legal " feel to it, and it's obvious the court had a hand in it."