A New Jersey judge’s order banning a mother on probation from mentioning her children or their father on Facebook and elsewhere online was not unconstitutional, an appellate court ruled this week.
The case centered on the online statements -- which the judge called irrational and bizarre -- by a woman referred to in court documents as H.L.M.
After she lost custody of her son and daughter, the mother tried to take them away from their father and ran off to Canada. She was arrested at the border and, in 2011, pleaded guilty to interference with custody.
As she awaited sentencing, she posted what Hunterdon County prosecutors and a Superior Court judge called “disturbing” posts on Facebook that referred to the Bible, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, Satan, Adolf Hitler and thwarted attempts to commit suicide in jail.
The judge, who was not named in the appellate ruling, wrote that these were among "what was contained in just a number of extensive blogs, just rambling, irrational, disturbing, bizarre statements.”
A psychiatrist told the judge that talking about the children on social media was therapeutic for the mother. But prosecutors disagreed, saying the post could haunt the family if the children ever saw them.
As part of her five-year probation sentence, the mother was ordered not to reference the children or their father in postings online.
“You can talk about what you want to talk about, but don't reference the father or the children,” the judge said. “That's off-limits."
Within months, she violated the condition and was ordered to perform community service. But she appealed just as a probation officer accused her of violating the condition again.
The woman argued that the probation condition was too vague; she had tried to skirt the rules by using code words instead of real names. A former patent attorney and electrical engineer, the mother also said her free speech rights had been violated. She was merely "press," she said, reporting on what was in the public sphere.
But in a ruling issued Monday, two judges with the New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division said that she was repeatedly warned not to reference her ex-husband or children. The decision was unpublished, meaning it is not binding on other courts.
“There is no uncertainty or confusion as to what activity was prohibited," the court said.
As to the free speech argument, the appellate court found that the narrow restriction served an important purpose in protecting the children and helping her move on from the situation.