Saturday, August 22, 2015

GateHouse: Facebook — a venue for abuse

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse Media
August 21, 2015
Did you know that hitting “like” on your Facebook page could land you in jail? A Pennsylvania man may soon find out.

Justin Bellanco was recently charged with indirect criminal contempt. Police allege that he violated a restraining order filed against him by his ex-girlfriend. The violation occurred on Facebook.

According to Wilkes-Barre Time Leader, Bellanco was arrested after his victim told police that he “liked” 22 of her photographs and videos on her Facebook page.

He isn’t the first person to be charged for such conduct. An Arkansas man and a New York man have also been charged for similar conduct.

This is not the first, nor most heralded, court intervention into criminal conduct that is allegedly manifested through Facebook. Earlier this year, the United States Supreme Court decided that statements posted on Facebook that may be perceived as threats are protected by the First Amendment.

Domestic violence is a serious problem in this country. Violence and abuse can happen to anyone, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or economic status. One in four women are victimized. Domestic violence is most often perpetrated behind closed doors, but in this case the conduct is on a public forum for all the world to see.

Bellanco told police that he didn’t know “liking” Facebook photos constituted a violation of the protective order. That defense won’t fly. No contact means no contact. Any effort to overtly make contact with the subject of a protective order is guilty of criminal contempt.

However, Bellanco posted a subsequent message on — what else — Facebook, telling a different story. His post, according to the website, included, “they were actually posts on my facebook (sic) wall... nothing I liked appeared on her Facebook ... I was not aware that she would receive any notification due to the fact we were no longer friends... and I was not able to remove her tag from posts.”

This case, and others like it, may be more about how social media works, than whether an order of court has been violated or a crime committed.

The breadth of social media is ever expanding. A cursory review of the internet turned up more than 150 social media sites including Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, Vox, Zoopa, Twitter, Vine and Snapchat.

How does a participant interact with other members of a social network? For instance, a Facebook member “tags” another member in a post and a third member “likes” that post but also happens to have a protective order prohibiting contact with the person tagged. Her “like” has been communicated to the person tagged, albeit unintentionally, is she in violation of the no contact order?

On Twitter, a guy tweets something about his ex who is not following him, but his friend retweets it and the guy’s ex is the friend’s follower and as a result she sees the tweet.

What if you are on Instagram and you double tap on a photograph thinking you might enlarge the photograph but you actually send a “like” to your ex who has a no contact order. Is that a violation?

When an abuser intentionally posts statements on social media, knowing the likelihood of exposure to the victim, that conduct is criminal contempt. The controversy arises when intent is less clear.

Until the courts figure this out, all protective orders should include language to “unfriend” the victim and remove all potential contact with the victim on social media. This may help to prevent traumatic, unwanted contact between an abuser and his victim.

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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