By: Nathan Geronimo
A few months ago I wrote about the dangers of posting information online that contradicted your own contentions when involved in litigation. I cited to cases where posts on social networking sites were used as evidence against plaintiffs in civil cases. A recent case involving blogs and social networking sites illustrates yet another legal issue associated with internet posts in the modern times: Posts affecting a third party’s privacy, and the possibility that such posts can be considered harassment.
Johnson v. Arlotta is a classic “jilted lover” story with a modern twist. Andrew Arlotta and Ann Marie Johnson had a romantic relationship for just under a year. After this relationship terminated, Arlotta continued to contact Johnson, who did not welcome Arlotta’s communications. In late December 2009, Johnson obtained a six-month harassment restraining order against Arlotta, which prohibited Arlotta from committing any acts intended to adversely affect Johnson’s safety or privacy, and from having any contact with Johnson by email or by other means or persons.
Just two days after entry of the order, Arlotta posted an internet blog entitled “Help Ann Johnson.” Arlotta penned the blog in third-person, and detailed his relationship woes with Johnson. Arlotta also wrote about Johnson’s alleged involvement in sexually and physically abusive relationships, and questioned Johnson’s mental health. To promote the blog, Arlotta created two fake Face Book identities to post the blog, and sent email links for the blog to Johnson’s family members and employer. In September 2010, Johnson petitioned for a new restraining order, and the Court issued one to last 51 years, and directed Arlotta to remove his blog from the internet.
On appeal, Arlotta argued that his blog and emails could not be considered harassment because they were directed to third parties. The Court disagreed, finding that the blog had a substantial adverse effect on Johnson’s privacy, and Arlotta’s communications were intended to, and eventually did reach Johnson. The Court also found Arlotta’s contention that he was trying to help Johnson similarly unavailing.
The Court, while recognizing that information published on the internet enjoys the same level of protection as information published in other media, analogized harassment speech to other constitutionally unprotected speech such as “fighting words.” The Court noted that states have a compelling interest in ensuring an individuals’ right to be free from harassment, and determined that the harassment restraining order did not violate the constitution.
These days, a lot of information about a person can be found on the internet. And technically, if that information is true, it is usually “fair game.” However, if a person uses internet posts to air grievances in a public forum, that person may find himself defending those actions in Court. Not only can web posts be used to impeach a person’s testimony in Court, they can also be the reason a person finds himself in Court in the first place.