Judge Orders Divorcing Husband To Apologize on Facebook
- Judge rules that Mark Byron violated restraining order by calling wife evil and vindictive on Facebook
- Mandate to apologize riles free-speech advocates
- Lawyer says restraining orders are biased and overused against husbands
An Evil, Vindictive Woman
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Mark and Elizabeth Byron were involved in a messy divorce case last year, with custody of their baby son at stake. No story there. However, the tale took a turn for the weird after the judge slapped a protection order on Mark Byron in June for civil domestic violence, preventing him from subjecting his wife to “mental abuse, harassment, [or] annoyance.” In November, Byron made a post on his private Facebook page complaining about the restraining order — and that very post was enough to violate its terms, said a judge.
“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!” Byron wrote on his page. His estranged wife, he believed, would not be able to read the post because he had blocked her from his wall.
Not so. The wife found out anyway, complained to the judge, and the judge decided that Byron needed to apologize, or face 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. The court decided that the post was “clearly intended to be mentally abusive, harassing and annoying,” and “generate a negative and venomous response toward her from his Facebook friends.”
Court Compelled Speech
Byron has complained that the forced apology violates his constitutional right to freedom of speech, but has been nevertheless posting it faithfully every day to avoid potential jail time.
“I would like to apologize to my wife, Elizabeth Byron, for the comments regarding her and our son Jonathon which were posted on my Facebook wall on or about November 23, 2011,” he posts. The text of the apology was reportedly written by the judge. “I hereby apologize to Elizabeth for casting her in an unfavorable light by suggesting that she withheld Jonathon from me or that she in any manner prevented me from seeing Jonathon during that period.”
Byron has appealed his restraining order, and prior to the court-compelled apology maintained that his wife was able to use to order to prevent him from seeing his son. He had previously been criminally exonerated from any alleged threats against his wife.
Predisposed to Violence
Privacy advocates quoted in various news stories have questioned the ruling, both for the surprising decision that an innocuous-sounding Facebook post could violate a protection order, and for the court mandating that Byron post the apology (or go to jail.)
“I strongly suspect the court went beyond its authority,” says Missouri-based family law attorney Joe Cordell. “I think this is representative of the fact that we’re blazing new trails in this technological world. Courts are having to figure out how the rules apply in this setting.”
Cordell, who maintains a men’s rights website to keep fathers informed about their rights and advocate for more male-friendly courts, sees a larger issue at play in the Byron case, beyond the question of freedom of speech. “Judges think guys are predisposed to violence,” Cordell says. “The order of protection itself is written in a way that is broader than it has to be.”
In other words, if a wife accuses her husband of threats or violence, courts will almost always err on the side of caution and issue a protection or restraining order. “Every day in courtrooms across America, orders are being issued with very vague allegations, and nothing remotely approaching actual physical abuse,” says Cordell. And the consequences are deep: “It literally sinks the man’s ship in terms of primary custody in many states,” the lawyer says. “When you place the stakes this high, mere allegation is enough.”
Undeserved Sympathy and Attention
“It gets pretty squishy when orders use language that says eminent fear of physical harm,” Cordell explains. “Many courts have construed that as liberally as you possibly could. The result is something like this– a guy making a statement to a third party, not suggesting or implying any physical harm, but because a judge sees it as harassment or emotional abuse, the court feels it’s in the parameters of a violation of an order of protection.”
“Guy’s lives are changed by this and it’s nothing more than a bald allegation,” he says. “You have here probably most glaring example I’ve seen in recent times of abuse of orders of protection.”
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Byron’s attorney released a statement firing back against the furor stirred up by the story.
“It pains me beyond words to see Mark Byron exploit our infant son to gain media exposure and self serving undeserved sympathy and attention,” the statement reads. “There have been many true heroes of the First Amendment in the history of our country; Mark Byron is not one of them.”