“ONLY LEMONS FROM THESE CROOKS!”: What Should Judges Do About Angry Social Media?

It is easy to be idealistic about the cultural effects of the internet—opening communication between different cultures, comparatively free and open information—until one gets to the comments section of any given interactive content-based website.  One of the negative things the internet is good at is stirring self-righteous indignation in even the best of us.  Recently, the Third District Court of Appeal for the State of Florida had to decide what to do about a Circuit Court’s injunction against a couple who would not stop making angry blog posts about their ex-landlords and their business.  The case, Chevaldina v. R.K./FL Management, Inc. (Fla. Ct. App. Feb. 6, 2014), displays the tensions between cyberstalking deterrence and First Amendment rights, an area that is only bound to grow.

In Chevaldina, appellants had been previously suing for breach of lease and defamation.  After those cases were dismissed with prejudice, the Chevaldinas took to the internet, specifically by creating an anonymous blog about RK Associates.  They wrote things like “Bottom line, when you sign a lease with RK Associates, Raanan Katz goes after YOUR money no matter what,” and “Raanan Katz and Daniel Katz are the most immoral human-being[s] in the world.  They are dare enough to take bread from little Jewish special needs child to support their luxury lifestyle [sic].”  The circuit court in a new case based on these blog posts demanded a temporary injunction be placed on the Chevaldinas.  That is all swell and good until one looks at the language and implications of the injunction, held by the Court of Appeal to be overbroad, vague, and burdensome on First Amendment rights.

Section 784.046, Florida Statutes (2012), provides a remedy of protective injunction by a victim of “repeat violence, sexual violence, or dating violence” against a perpetrator.  “Violence” under the statute includes stalking and aggravated stalking, as well as a myriad of other offenses against the person.  According to Section 784.048(2) of the Florida Statutes, a person who “willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows, harasses, or cyberstalks another person commits the offense of stalking,” which is included in the eligibility for protective orders provided by Section 784.046.  Furthermore, in Section 784.048(d), to “cyberstalk” is to “engage in a course of conduct to communicate, or cause to be communicated, words, images, or language by or through the use of electronic mail or electronic communication, directed at a specific person, causing substantial emotional distress . . . and serving no legitimate purpose.”

However, one should think about the worst instance of group internet ire he or she has seen before assuming this holding should be extended beyond the facts of this case.

The Court of Appeal held that “the record lacks a basis for finding stalking and fails to support a temporary injunction to enjoin stalking and trespassing[.]”  That court analogized angry social media postings to “holding a poster on a public sidewalk in front of an auto dealer that proclaimed, ‘DON’T BUY HERE! ONLY LEMONS FROM THESE CROOKS!’”  Just as the person picketing an auto dealer would not be entitled to an injunction under the appropriate section, the court reasoned, “[t]he same well-developed body of law allows the complaining blogger to complain,” without fear of injunctive relief repressing the blogger’s speech.  Professor Eugene Volokh at UCLA School of Law agreed that the court made the right decision in this case, because “the original injunction was a clear violation of the First Amendment.”  However, one should think about the worst instance of group internet ire he or she has seen before assuming this holding should be extended beyond the facts of this case.  Otherwise, we will patting the rage machine on the head for exercising free speech.