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Restraining orders and Facebook

| Jun 9, 2013 | Abuse, Protective Orders |

Does a court ordered domestic abuse restraining order effect the way a person uses Facebook or other social media? In Massachusetts a typical domestic abuse restraining order includes a no contact and no abuse order protecting an individual or an individual and their children. As an example, a Court may order John to stay 100 yards away from his wife Jane and his children Mary and Sam. In addition, John is prohibited from contacting or abusing Jane, Mary, or Sam. Violation of any of these orders is a criminal act subjecting John to possible arrest and criminal prosecution. If convicted, John could be incarcerated. John is a user of Facebook and has been a user for years. His wife Jane and possibly his children are “friends” on Facebook. He and Mary have common “friends” on their Facebook accounts.
The first thing that John should do is to “unfriend” Jane and the children. As friends, his wife and children will receive postings from John’s Facebook page on their own Facebook pages. Any postings by John that appear on Jane’s Facebook page could easily be considered to be a violation of the no contact order. Since John is aware that Jane is a “friend” he should be aware that his postings will appear on the “walls” of his Facebook friends. This should be sufficient to constitute an intentional act that violates the no contact provision of the restraining order. However, is unfriending his wife and children sufficient? Probably not.
John should avoid mentioning Jane, Mary, and Sam in his Facebook postings. Even if John writes that “I love my children and will never stop loving them” he could be arrested. While I believe that such a posting doesn’t violate the restraining order if the wife and children are no longer friends, my opinion is not enough to stop him from being arrested. Since John and Jane have common friends, one of these friends may tell Jane about the posting. If Jane calls the police, the initial decision about arresting and prosecuting John will be made by the police or Assistant District Attorney. The problem is that not every police officer, Assistant District Attorney, or even Judges understand Facebook and how it works. As a result, a criminal case can be filed against John. It is small comfort for John that at trial or on appeal, the case is dismissed. He may spend time in jail and may have to spend thousands of dollars to hire a lawyer and possibly an expert witness to fight the criminal case. The better choice is to avoid conduct that may result in the criminal charges.
I recommend the following actions if a order issues:
  1. Immediately “Unfriend” the person identified in the restraining order as being protected.
  2. Do not write or post anything online that uses the name of the protected person or an other term that identifies them. Identifying Jane as “my wife” or writing about “my children” is the same as identifying them by name.
  3. Do not post any pictures or video of the protected person.
  4. Do not discuss the restraining order in a public forum like Facebook.
  5. Adjust your security settings on Facebook so that protected person can’t see your content.
If you are the subject of a restraining order you should consult an experienced lawyer to help you understand the order. There may be parts of the order that are not clear or confusing. You want to avoid any conduct that can result in an arrest for violation of the restraining order.
* Facebook is used in this discussion but the discussion applies to all social media.
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