Court dismisses restraining orders filed against women who shared woman's Facebook comment, picture
WAUKESHA COUNTY (CBS 58) -- Christina Benton, Bethany Crevensten, Courtney Lloyd and Megan Genthert did not all know each other a month ago.
"The first time any of us met in person was in our attorney's office," said Benton.
They got an attorney after being served with temporary restraining orders. It all started after a Facebook comment on a news story about a Shorewood woman who was arrested for spitting on a protester.
The comment said, "That a girl!!! Should have done more. It's time we stop these people."
"I perceived this as not only an encouragement of criminal activity but also a hate crime that occurred against a child," said Benton.
Benton said the comment was eventually deleted but not before people were able to look on the page of the woman who posted it.
"Find out her husband was also an MPD officer because he was photographed on her Facebook profile with his full MPD uniform," she said.
Benton said she shared that screenshot of the woman's comment and a photo of her husband in uniform and tweeted it at the Milwaukee Police Department.
"Asking if this was conduct that they supported or were aware of. Essentially that tweet was picked up and shared on other social media platforms," said Benton.
One of the people who shared a post about the comments on her Facebook page was Bethany Crevensten.
"My posts tend to get a lot of attraction by multiple people in the city and this ended up going into a big Milwaukee group and my post got shared a lot and comments came out on it," she said, "I wanted to protest in her neighborhood because I feel like it is something that everyone should know what’s going on, it’s not hidden behind closed doors anymore, this is a very serious situation in our world."
Genthert and Lloyd then hopped on the post, with Lloyd saying she wanted to chalk in front of the woman's home.
"It was posts of public records and saying we wanted to chalk, there's nothing harmful about chalking," said Crevensten.
The women said no one ever ended up going to the woman's home.
Eventually, the woman's name, address, and employer were posted on Facebook, with people reaching out to her employer.
Not long after, Spring City Family Dental posted this on their Facebook page: "Thank you for your patience as our legal team worked to assist us in recent events. Immediate and swift action was taken. The employee involved in abhorrent behavior is no longer employed at Spring City Family Dental. The conduct is not reflective of who we are as an office or community. We appreciate your continued support."
"Three of the four of us did contact her job to follow up to see if she had been terminated. Based on their own public Facebook posts that were addressing the behavior that occurred, the following post they had informed the public that they had chosen to terminate that individual as a result of that behavior."
Over the course of the next week, all four women were served temporary restraining orders filed by the woman, identified in public court records as Christa Fons.
In one, she wrote that a photo of her husband and kids had been shared on Facebook. "The post was share over 500 times and over 700 comments. Subject has called my employer and threatened to show up, causing me to lose my job. Subject stated she will protest outside of my house to intimidate my family and I. Subject also continues to call my husband's work demanding my husband, who is a Milwaukee police officer, gets fired. I have had to relocate my family up north in fear for their safety and the showing up to harm my children and I."
She goes on to say she feels she needs to the restraining order "to protect my family's safety, prevent mental stress, stop harassment and to stop calling/messaging my ex-employer looking for me."
All four women had injunction hearings this week. The court commissioner in each case, dismissed the temporary restraining orders.
A court document from Benton's case said the petitioner failed to meet the burden of proof for harassment.
"The commissioner we had at our hearing repeatedly said the World Wide Web to address that the contents of your page may be private, you may be able to remove comments that you make, but at the end of the day, once you've put something out, no matter what's private and what's not, be it a photo or a statement, you, freedom of speech is real, but freedom of speech without consequence is not real and you are responsible for what you say regardless of the circumstances or whether or not you choose to change your opinion or remove that post, it exists forever," said Benton.
"If you go on Wisconsin CCAP this will still show, and I think that could be detrimental if we are applying for new jobs or anything. We’re still going to be questioned about what happened and it’s honestly embarrassing. For me, myself, and I think the other women here that we feel that we're being held accountable for the actions of somebody else." said Genthert.
“She has a right to speak and although Facebook doesn’t have to accept comments from everyone, for the most part, they will. People need to understand that what you put on Facebook is a public comment and unless you have significantly restricted the audience to whom your comment is directed, you’re not going to be able to have any recourse in civil courts against individuals who then share that information with others. So, don’t say anything on Facebook unless you’re willing to have the whole world see it,” said Rick Esenberg with the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, who is not associated with the case.
Esenberg says it becomes more complicated if people move beyond what someone posted on Facebook and start sharing private information.
“There are provisions in Wisconsin law that provide if you disclose non-public information about a person that is highly offensive and can cause them harm, you may be liable for that. So when we move from simply sharing the Facebook comment to do what is commonly known as doxing, then there may be other avenues of legal recourse that open up, but it really depends on the facts of the case."
As part of the injunction hearing, there was an affidavit from the owner of Spring City Family Dental, where Fons had been working. He said he had received a call from her indicating that she had posted something on Facebook. He said he viewed the post and terminated her because he did not support the beliefs or comments made. He added that no one influenced his decision to terminate her.
CBS 58 spoke with Dan Kaplan, co-chair of the Labor and Employment National Practice Group for Foley and Lardner, about what a person's rights are when it comes to free speech and employment.
"Generally, the First Amendment to the constitution, the freedom of speech, is a right that is guaranteed to employees, just like citizens, but only in for employees that are employed by public or government employers. For example, a private employer, like Foley and Lardner, can take whatever action it wants based on speech, depending upon the speech that is undertaken, but if it disagrees with something I say, they can absolutely take adverse action against me, I don't have any First Amendment right vis-a-vis my private employer."
CBS 58 tried to contact Fons, but did not hear back.
The Milwaukee Police Department said, "MPD does not have a comment for statements taken by an individual (a spouse) who is not a member of our agency."