Man escapes jail over Facebook apology

2012-03-20 11:24
Cincinnati - A man who made comments about his estranged wife on his Facebook page and was threatened with jail unless he posted daily apologies for a month won't be locked up even though he stopped making amends early.

Mark Byron agreed to begin posting the apology in February to avoid jail but later said the ruling violated his freedom of speech. He stopped posting the apology after 26 days, but Judge Jon Sieve determined that he had posted it long enough, and Byron wasn't jailed.

Byron said afterward that he was relieved not to be in jail, "but I was prepared to go to defend my free speech rights".

Byron's attorney, Becky Ford, said that she has filed a notice of appeal in a state court.

"We believe that by scripting and saying what he had to post on Facebook, the court violated his rights to free speech," Ford said. "The First Amendment not only protects your right to speak, but it also protects your ability to remain silent."

Divorce

According to the ruling, Byron, 37, had posted comments on his page in November, saying in part: "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 you're scared of your husband or domestic partner and they'll take him away."

The Byrons have been involved in ongoing divorce and child custody proceedings. Byron has said his wife and the court have prevented him from seeing his young son many times. The court maintains he is allowed to see him on a twice-weekly basis.

A June court order prohibited Byron from causing his wife physical or mental abuse, harassment or annoyance. She asked in December that he be found in contempt after learning of the Facebook comments.

Domestic Relations Magistrate Paul Meyers in January found Byron in contempt of a protective order because of his Facebook comments.

He said Byron could avoid a 60-day jail sentence and a $500 fine by posting the apology - written by the magistrate - to his wife and all of his Facebook friends and paying her attorney fees. The same apology had to be posted every day no later than 9 a.m.

The ruling said several of Byron's comments were intended to "generate a negative and venomous response toward her from his Facebook friends".

Byron said that, even if he didn't go to jail, "this is a really big deal" for hundreds of millions of people using Facebook.

Free speech concerns

"They could do this to anybody," he said.

Free speech and media experts have said that the case should concern other users of the social networking site.

Cincinnati attorney Jack Greiner, who specialises in free speech and media issues, said earlier that compelling speech through a court-written apology raises as many free speech concerns as prohibiting speech.

He said that the issue still causes concern but that he believes Byron might have difficulty appealing since he posted the apology and didn't go to jail.

The statement Byron posted had him apologising to his wife for "casting her in an unfavourable light" and to his Facebook friends for "attempting to mislead them".

He says that in addition to standing up for his rights, he stopped posting the apology "because it forced me to make false statements".

The estranged wife's attorney, Joel Moskowitz, said he was disappointed that Byron did not get any jail time.
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