As has been extensively reported, the Supreme Court recently heard argument on a case involving threats made on Facebook, which raises the question of where the line is between free speech and criminal liability. But this is not a one-time-only issue. Courts across the country deal with the consequences of unchecked online speech all the time.
Last month, for example, the California Court of Appeals upheld a personal protection order against a man who was found to be harassing a woman on Instagram. Both were managers at separate drugstores within the same company until Kwan, the woman, was let go. Murcia, the man, apparently reacted by posting a copy of her LinkedIn profile photo on his Instagram page, adorned with such offensive hashtags as "#blackb***h, #joblessb***h, #bootedout, #kickedout, #gokillyourself." Kwan alleged that this was just a continuation of the way Murcia had treated her in person while she was employed.
Murcia fought the PPO request in the trial court, claiming that there wasn't enough evidence that Kwan had been emotionally injured by the exchanges, and blaming his girlfriend for the Instagram post. He also accused Kwan of harassing him back through Instagram comments of her own. He did, however, admit to exchanging some profanity-laden text messages that Kwan admitted into evidence.
Both the trial and appellate courts rejected Murcia's "my girlfriend did it" excuse, noting that even "indirect contact through third parties" formed part of the pattern of harassment that Kwan had already demonstrated. Moreover, the courts validated Kwan's concerns that Murcia's comments could injure her professional career and make it harder for her to find work in the future. This echoes the advice that I and so many others have given to those who share their every unfiltered whim online. More than 90% of employers look at job applicants online, and it's already hard enough to find the right job. No one needs online gossip and vitriol to make their chances even harder.
Distressing as behavior like Murcia's can be, decisions like this one are an encouraging indication that courts are getting the message that abusive words on social media really do cause harm.