Woman Arrested for Social Media Snark While High Court Protects Suspect’s Right to Tell Police to “Worry About a Head Shot”
A woman in Morris County, New Jersey, was arrested in December for her social media posts that officials say constituted threats of terrorism, harassment, and retaliation. The last two of those “threats” seem to pertain to the authorities, who stretched statements from the merely obnoxious to appear as a “true threat.”
Monica Ciardi had been posting to Facebook for weeks about her child custody dispute. Her posts, coming by the dozens, criticized her ex-husband and the Morris County judges presiding over her case. In late December, police finally arrested Ciardi for posting “Judge Bogaard and Judge DeMarzo: If you don’t do what I want then you don’t get to see your kids. Hmm.”
Here’s the catch, Ciardi was parroting what the two judges said to her, accidentally forgetting to use quotation marks. Ciardi had meant to post what the judges had declared in court – that if she didn’t do what they wanted, then she wouldn’t get to see her children.
Ciardi offered an insightful metaphor:
“This is my personal Facebook page with 50 people on it. They came to my page and then turned around and said I harassed them. That’s like if I know you don’t like me, I go to your house, I stand on your front porch, I overhear you saying bad things about me, and then I call the cops and say, ‘She’s harassing me. I know I’m on her porch, but you should just hear what she said.'”
Ciardi’s attorney said the incident amounted to “the government punishing and jailing a woman for simply speaking her mind.”
Ciardi claims her experience in jail was a nightmare. While there, she says that she received death threats, saw several assaults, and got caught in the line of fire of correctional officers’ pepper spray twice. She says she suffered panic attacks, lost 15 pounds, and was placed in protective custody, which meant she didn’t leave her cell “for more than 45 minutes two to three times a week, max.” That’s stiff punishment for venting frustrations online.
Ciardi spent 35 days in jail until Superior Court Judge Mark Ali, who had originally ordered her detention, ordered her release. Ali cited a recent New Jersey Supreme Court ruling that raised the bar for terroristic threat charges. That case, too, is problematic, but for the opposite reason. Even a First Amendment organization like our own is agog at that ruling.
The New Jersey high court ruled on Jan. 16 that a man who told police during a domestic disturbance call to “worry about a head shot” if they enter his property. He also posted online that he knew where the officers lived and the cars they drove. The court ruled that prosecutors had failed to prove that such statements were credible threats that “instill fear of injury in a reasonable person in the victim’s position” and are not merely “political dissent or angry hyperbole.”
While we are pleased to see that Ciardi has been released, we disagree with the New Jersey court’s new precedent. In the case of the “head shot,” the threat was made against the putative target, the police. Unless the comment was made in an obviously sarcastic way or in some manner that indicated its insincerity, law enforcement should be able to take such claims seriously.
There must be an easy line to be drawn between arresting a woman for her Facebook posts about a pending trial and a true threat of violence against law enforcement officers. We look forward to further developments in this latest case.