When Can Posting Negative Comments About Someone on Social Media Lead to Cyberstalking Charges?
As new technologies gain popularity, the law must often play catch-up. For example, social media networks like Facebook and Twitter have made it easier than ever to communicate with other people. Unfortunately, in some cases that communication is unwanted or considered harassment by the recipient.
Under Florida law it is a first-degree misdemeanor to “cyberstalk” someone. The target of such cyberstalking may also seek an injunction against the perpetrator. But it is important to recognize what conduct is–and is not–actually considered cyberstalking.
Fourth District Adopts “Social Media Exemption”
A recent decision from the Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal, Logue v. Brook, offers some clarification on this subject. The petitioner in this case is a woman who advocates for “strict policies related to sex offenders.” The respondent, himself a previously convicted sex offender, opposes such laws.
During a political march in support of sex offender laws at the state capitol in Tallahassee, the respondent led a counter-protest across the street. He held a sign that made specific reference to the petitioner’s father. However, there was no direct contact between the petitioner and the respondent.
Sometime later, the petitioner and the respondent both attended the screening of a documentary about sex offenders in New York. After the film ended, the petitioner took questions from the audience. The respondent asked her why she believed sex offenders “don’t deserve a second chance when your father … is a convicted criminal who got a second chance?” A witness described the respondent’s tone as “loud” and “aggressive,” although other witnesses disputed this account.
Finally, the respondent used his website and social media accounts to express his personal antipathy towards the petitioner. For example, he posted the petitioner’s home address and a picture of her residence on his website. He also posted a “video of a song containing an obscene title and lyrics, as well as a cartoon depicting a tombstone with an obscene reference to” the respondent.
Based on this information, a Broward County judge granted the petitioner’s request for an injunction. The court ordered the respondent to stay at least 1,000 feet away from the petitioner–and 500 feet from her residence–at all times.
The Fourth District reversed the injunction. With respect to the respondent’s actions in Tallahassee, the appeals court said that was clearly political speech protected under the First Amendment. As for the respondent’s social media posts, they did not qualify as cyberstalking under Florida law as it was not a “course of conduct directed a specific person.”
Now this might seem counterintuitive. Even the Fourth District conceded the social media posts were obviously “aimed at” the petitioner. But other Florida appeals courts have interpreted the cyberstalking law to “exempt social media messages” because they are broadcast to the public at-large rather than directed at a specific person. The Fourth District decided to adopt this same standard. This meant that while the song and cartoon that the respondent posted was “vulgar and distasteful,” in the Fourth District’s words, they were not “sent directly” to the petitioner and did not constitute cyberstalking under Florida’s definition of that term. (As for the posts of the petitioner’s home address and residence, the appeals court noted that was already “publicly accessible” information, particularly given the petitioner ran her political action committee from her house.)
Speak with a Miami Criminal Defense Lawyer Today
Harassing other people online is never a good idea. But you should also not refrain from exercising your First Amendment rights because you fear someone will make an unsubstantiated civil (or criminal) charge of cyberstalking against you. If you need advice or assistance from a qualified Miami criminal attorney, contact the Law Office of Julia Kefalinos today.