Social Media Rants: Free Speech or Harassment?

Freedom of speech is a fundamental right of all Americans. We are proud of the right and quick to reference it anytime someone questions what we write or say. But does the right to say whatever we want give us the right to be heard? How do we balance free speech against the right to be free of slander, defamation and harassment? Is there a difference between what we say to a friend in person vs. what we post on social media sites? Recently, a judge in Ohio weighed in on a case of a man accused of harassing his estranged wife on Facebook. For complete story see Ohio Man Faces Facebook Apology or Jail Time.

The brief version of the story is a judge ordered a man to make daily Facebook apologies to his estranged wife for a month or face jail time as punishment for making Facebook posts deemed to be harassing and threatening. This seemingly straightforward court order is anything but, now the man is appealing the ruling arguing it violates his freedom of speech.  

Complicating the matter is the question of whether a judge can order someone to communicate a message to others that is in opposition to what that person really thinks and feels. I expect that means the man is not only standing behind his free speech rights to post what he wants on Facebook, but included in the right is protection from being ordered to say something you don't want to say. I find it all very interesting and look towards reading how it all plays out.

I like to think judges are exceptionally smart people. They are tasked with the duty to uphold justice and protect rights in each and every case brought before them. I question if the judge in this case ever intended to open this can of worms. He had to know that ordering apologies would not make the man remorseful, but I think he knew the unusual order would likely make the news. And by being in the news, a message is being sent to a broader audience that the right to free speech is not the same thing as the right to harass someone.

What is your take on this story? How do you think it will play out?

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