When so much social interaction is via electronic means, it is hardly surprising that injunctions for cyberstalking are becoming more frequent. A recent case regarding this issue was decided by Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal, and it came with a twist. This case addressed the interface between cyberstalking and the First Amendment.
O'Neill v. Goodwin
O’Neill v. Goodwin was decided on June 29, 2016. This is a story of two former co-workers. Joseph, the Appellant, had a thing for Sarah, the Appellee. She didn’t want contact with him. Joseph complied with Sarah’s wishes and two years passed. While in film school, Joseph gained access to Sarah’s social media profile through anonymous friend requests. Subsequently, he produced a documentary, which prominently and negatively featured Sarah. Joseph was concerned about the negative repercussions the documentary might cause Sarah and went to her house to advise her of the release of the documentary. While Sarah admitted that the purpose of Joseph’s visit was to advise her of this film, she never feared violence by him. She threatened to call the police if he did not leave the premises. Joseph never got to convey the complete information to Sarah regarding the film.
The Court's Determination
A few weeks later, Joseph contacted Sarah via text to let her know about the documentary. She saw the film online and was upset by the portrayal of her. To make matters worse, she found out Joseph had contacted her friends to talk about the film. Sarah decided to file a petition for protection against stalking. The petition claimed that Joseph had threatened harm to her and her family. She claimed he stalked and stole pictures from her social media account. The temporary injunction was granted and eventually the trial court granted a permanent injunction. Thus, “barring [Joseph] from contacting [Sarah], posting on the internet regarding her, possessing a firearm, or defacing/destroying [Sarah’s] personal property.” The ruling in this appeal turned on whether or not the contact Joseph made with Sarah had a legitimate purpose. The Court of Appeal found for Joseph; they found that his contacts with Sarah did have a legitimate purpose. It was to convey information about the documentary that could affect her adversely.
A Caution to the Court
The important note about this case is the caution made to the trial court. It needs to “more carefully craft injunctions so as to balance the need for protection for petitioners with the constitutional rights of defendants.” Essentially, by barring Joseph from “posting on the internet” regarding Sarah, the trial court made an impermissible prior restraint. This violated his First Amendment right to free speech.