Tagging the wrong person in a Facebook post could land you in jail. That’s what New York woman Maria Gonzalez is facing after a state judge ruled she violated a restraining order when she tagged her former in-law in a Facebook post.
Gonzalez tagged her former sister-in-law Maribel Calderon, who filed a protection order, also known as a restraining order, against her that barred communication. Calderon was tagged in two Facebook posts, one which simply read “stupid” and another that said, “You and your family are sad :(…You guys have to come stronger than that!! I’m way over you guys but I guess not in ya agenda.”
Westchester County Supreme Court Justice Susan Capeci ruled January 15 that social media messages are the same as direct email communication and using Facebook to contact a victim violated the protection order.
Gonzalez’s criminal case is the latest example of social media messages being considered as legitimate communication and prime for legal violations. And the New York court’s ruling could prove to be a win for online harassment victims.
Previous cases have favored online abusers, but the Gonzalez ruling shows that simply mentioning a person in a status update or tweet is the same as direct contact through personal messages, email, phone calls, or mailed letters.
In the Huffington Post piece that first reported the case, former Manhattan prosecutor Andrew Stengel emphasized that even seemingly innocuous online interactions, such as “likes” that trigger notifications, could lead to criminal charges if the receiver is under a protected order.
Disobeying an order is analogous to disobeying a judge. A poke or tweet may seem harmless or even silly. But if those or similar social media means of contact are directed towards a person who is protected from contact by any electronic means it could lead criminal prosecution. It is better to refrain from a tag or a like than to be sorry.
Advocates for online harassment victims have complained about the lack of recourse available to curb abusive behavior online and in the courts. But the threat of criminal charges that come with January’s ruling could serve as a deterrent for the public and also help convince law enforcement that online harassment should be pursued even in the absence of a restraining order.
Abusive behavior online is pervasive across platforms, sparking intense debate on whether sexually graphic or violent messages warrant legal consequences. Law enforcement agencies have battled with online harassment and have often been criticized for writing off complaints of threats as less than credible, especially if they were made anonymously.
Years of public backlash have pushed social media companies such as Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook to tweak their online policies to more explicitly ban offensive or potentially threatening behavior and to make it easier to report such behavior directly to local law enforcement agencies.