Does Court-Ordered Apology Violate Constitutional Rights?

As an O.V.I./D.U.I. attorney, the Constitutional issues I regularly deal with involve the Fourth Amendment (search and seizure), the Fifth Amendment (double jeopardy, self-incrimination, due process), and the Sixth Amendment (trial rights). O.V.I. cases, and this blog, typically do not include First Amendment topics. However, an Ohio court’s ruling has peaked my interest.

A magistrate in a Hamilton County court ordered Mark Byron to post an apology to his wife on Facebook every day for 30 days. Byron and his wife were going through a divorce, and his wife accused him of verbally abusing her and threatening her. Although Byron was exonerated of criminal charges, a court issued a civil protection order that prohibited him from doing anything that would cause his wife to “suffer physical and/or mental abuse, harassment, annoyance, or bodily injury.”

Byron was unhappy with what happened, so he posted the following on Facebook:
“…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….”

Although Byron had blocked his wife from viewing his Facebook page, she learned of the post. The post came to the attention of the magistrate, and the magistrate found Byron to be in contempt of court. The magistrate ordered Byron to serve 60 days in jail or post an apology (written by the magistrate) on Facebook every day for 30 days. The story, and the apology, are on the website for USA Today.

The magistrate’s contempt finding raises some interesting issues. Byron made the comments to his “friends” on Facebook, knowing that his wife was not a “friend” and therefore could not see his posts. Do people not have the right to vent to friends?

The magistrate’s apology order also raises questions. Does the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment also include the freedom not to speak? Can a Court order a person to speak (or post) against his will?

Ironically, the magistrate also ordered Mr. Byron to be friends with his wife (on Facebook). I suspect they will not be ‘friends with benefits’.

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