A recent criminal case addressed, in part, an issue we saw in the case of Elonis v. United States. The Elonis case went to the U.S. Supreme Court which ultimately reversed the criminal conviction of a man based on statutory construction grounds that his Facebook postings did not offer the requisite mental intent to threaten the victim(s). The Supreme Court’s opinion did not address any First Amendment rights, however.
The case of Commonwealth v. Lambert, involved a Protection from Abuse Order entered against Lambert, the victim’s ex-boyfriend. Interestingly, and likely an insight into the voluminous use of social media by Lambert, was the specific PFA Order instruction that he shall refrain from posting “any remark(s) and/or images regarding Plaintiff, on any social network(s), including, but [not] limited to, Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, or any other electronic networks.” In other words, he was not permitted to post anything to social media pertaining to his ex-girlfriend. It should be noted that a Protection from Abuse Order restricts a perpetrator from having direct or indirect contact with a victim. If they do have contact, they could be subject to an Indirect Criminal Contempt. PFA Orders are civil restraining orders to protect a victim, but they have criminal repercussions: a violation – either verbally, in writing, or physically – will land someone in jail.
With that context in mind, we look at what Lambert did to violate the PFA Order. A day after the Order was entered, he posted a series of Facebook comments in which he does not name his ex-girlfriend, but that she was clearly the subject of the posts. As the Superior Court points out, Trial Courts need to consider the context of the violation and “temporal proximity” of the statements. Perhaps if Lambert had not made his posts a day after he was found to have abused his ex-girlfriend, the context and temporal proximity would have led the court to a different interpretation. The posts were not actually threatening or outwardly menacing (though the victim could certainly feel otherwise), but, as the Court considered, the posts were about the victim. They were discovered by the ex-girlfriend when she went to his Facebook page – she testified that she regularly checks the page for her own knowledge since he is such a voracious social media user that if he was angry or having mental health issues she would have notice of them before risking an interaction with him.
The victim let her local police know about the postings; they contacted the District Attorney’s office, who then initiated the contempt action. He was subsequently found guilty of contempt. That conviction led to the appeal by Lambert as to whether his indirect criminal contempt conviction was a violation of his First Amendment rights to free speech and whether the lack of wrongful intent (i.e. the posts were not threats) should have led to acquittal.
The main issue the Superior Court considered was the First Amendment claim. The Court’s opinion on that issue can be summarized with concept that the PFA Order is contact-based not content-based. In other words, the PFA does not restrict speech so much as it restricts who the speech is directed at. This is an important distinctions since restrictions on content must be strictly scrutinized. Here, however, the contact was – directly or indirectly – made to the victim through Lambert’s public (likely another factor) Facebook profile. By making statements about the victim on a public profile where she could reasonably be exposed to them, Lambert was, effectively, attempting to contact the victim.
As a consequence, his conviction was upheld. His mental intent argument – which successfully led to the overturning of the Elonis conviction – was unsuccessful, as well, since his mental intent to threaten was not at issue; merely the attempt to contact mattered – whether it was to threaten or say he was sorry is immaterial. It should also be noted that the standard of proof for Elonis was the criminal justice system’s “beyond a reasonable doubt,” whereas the standard for finding abuse occurred is the lower “preponderance of the evidence” standard, though an indirect criminal contempt carries the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard.
The broader implication is that Facebook and social media can be and will be considered forms of communication with the victim of a PFA. Shouting into the void of social media is not without consequences and, as Lambert demonstrates, the intent is secondary to the act of communicating.