Morris County woman’s imprisonment for Facebook posts sparks free-speech fight

By: - January 29, 2024 7:00 am

Monica Ciardi was charged with harassment and jailed for 35 days for complaining on Facebook about the judges who presided over her child custody battle. Another judge on Friday ordered her freed, and she was discharged from the Essex County Correctional Facility Saturday night. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

For weeks, Monica Ciardi vented on Facebook about her ex-husband, their bitter child custody dispute, and the Morris County judges overseeing it, calling the jurists liars and demanding their resignations in posts that sometimes numbered dozens a day.

She knew her rants might rankle, so she posted about that too, citing a federal court ruling protecting social media posts as free speech.

“ZERO RETALIATION IS PERMITTED AGAINST ME FOR EXERCISING MY RIGHTS. Take notice,” she wrote on Dec. 15.

A week later, police swarmed her Chatham home and took her to jail in handcuffs after Morris County prosecutors decided at least one post about the judges amounted to terroristic threats, harassment, and retaliation against a public official.

“This is my personal Facebook page with 50 people on it,” Ciardi said. “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.'”

Monica Ciardi, pictured in a December selfie she posted to Facebook, spent 35 days in jail for Facebook posts Morris County authorities deemed threatening. (Photo courtesy of Ciardi)

Now, free speech advocates are watching the case, which her attorney characterizes as “the government punishing and jailing a woman for simply speaking her mind.”

“There’s really nothing criminal about what she did. Is it annoying? Yes. Is it a little over the top? Yes. But is it criminal? Absolutely not,” said assistant deputy public defender Mackenzie Shearer, who has asked a judge to dismiss the case. “Basically, she’s journaling online.”

Attorney Bruce Rosen, who specializes in First Amendment law, said the case “has all the earmarks of a First Amendment violation.”

“Context matters. If you put this in context with the rest of her posts, she’s an angry mother,” Rosen said. “It seems to me that someone’s being extra-protective.”

A spokeswoman for the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office referred a request for comment to Essex County authorities, who took over the case to avoid conflicts of interest. Robert Florida, a spokesman for the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, declined to comment.

The post that piqued authorities enough to file charges read: “Judge Bogaard and Judge DeMarzo: If you don’t do what I want then you don’t get to see your kids. Hmm.”

Shearer told the New Jersey Monitor that Ciardi was parroting the family court judges’ own words and just failed to use proper punctuation.

“She doesn’t even know if these judges have kids. She’s saying what they told her,” Shearer said. “She got arrested because she forgot quotation marks.”

Superior Court Judge Mark Ali ordered her detained, and she spent 35 days in jail. On Friday, Ali ordered her released, citing a recent New Jersey Supreme Court ruling that raised the bar for terroristic threat charges.

That case, which also involved Facebook posts, centered on a Freehold man’s comment to police to “worry about a head shot.” Justices decreed that context matters and prosecutors must prove comments are true threats of violence that would “instill fear of injury in a reasonable person in the victim’s position” and not merely “political dissent or angry hyperbole.”

Another judge heard Shearer’s motion to dismiss the case Friday but did not rule on it. Shearer said she will continue to press for a dismissal of charges Ciardi regards as retaliatory. Besides bashing the judges on Facebook, Ciardi filed a complaint with the court system against Judge James DeMarzo earlier in December for rulings she found objectionable.

Mark Doherty, Ciardi’s husband, said they have lost faith in the justice system.

“It’s such a short-sighted, small-minded attack to keep somebody from posting on Facebook by putting them in jail,” Doherty said. “100%, it’s retaliatory torture. They are embarrassed by what she posts online, and they know when she’s in jail, she can’t post on Facebook. But sorry, that is her First Amendment right.”

Ciardi, who wasn’t released from the Essex County Correctional Facility until Saturday night, told the New Jersey Monitor Sunday that she received death threats, saw several assaults, and got caught in the line of fire of correctional officers’ pepper spray twice while incarcerated in a jail infamous for its violence. 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,” she said.

“When you’re in jail, if you’re innocent, you’re still treated like a criminal. It’s completely demoralizing,” she said.

Still, she has no plans to stop sharing her experiences on social media. She said her Facebook posts serve both as a public record of her battle to regain physical custody of two of her four daughters and as a microphone for her to bring accountability to public officials she regards as corrupt.

“Like I tell my children, ultimately, silence is consent. And I don’t consent,” she said.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.

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