Macomb man's Facebook posts create a storm

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By Marie E. Matyjaszek

Most of us working in the judicial system are used to being publicly flogged via social media by a disgruntled client or losing party.  The right to free speech doesn’t necessarily mean that the speech has to be nice and kind, but there is a fine line as to what’s acceptable and what is threatening.

Macomb County resident Jonathan Vanderhagen suffered an unimaginable loss when his 2-year-old son died while in the care of the child’s mother.  While no criminal charges were filed against the mother, Vanderhagen had requested custody prior to the child’s death, alleging improper care and drug use by the mother. Macomb County Judge Rachel Rancilio was assigned to the case. 

Vanderhagen used Facebook as his platform to express criticism of the court system, including the judge and Friend of the Court, and his child’s mother. Judge Rancilio was notified of some of the posts, which could be viewed as threatening, and she in turn notified the police.  Vanderhagen was charged with the misdemeanor crime of malicious use of telecommunications services. He posted bond, and a no contact order between himself and the judge was put in place.

Vanderhagen continued to malign the court on his Facebook page, and when he appeared for court on the misdemeanor, a district court judge found him in violation of the no contact order, and raised his bond to $500,000.  The judge also ordered that the defendant undergo a mental health exam while he was held in jail. Vanderhagen had no criminal record, but he could not afford to post the increased bond.

Finally, on September 19, a jury found Vanderhagen not guilty of the crime, and he was released from jail, where he had been held for two months.  After a three-day trial, it was reported that the jury came back with the not guilty verdict less than 27 minutes after commencing deliberations. 

The Facebock post that appeared to have raised the most concern was one where Vanderhagen was holding a shovel with the initials “RR” and “MD” on it, stating he would dig up “all the skeleton’s in this court’s closet.” It is easy to take this post a step further and believe it is a threat insinuating the burial of the judge, but Vanderhagen insisted it was literally what he had posted – he was digging up dirt on the judge assigned to his case. His rationale behind the posts was to warn others about the court system by telling his personal story.

Based on what has been shared about the posts, I think the outcome was justified in this case.  Being in a quasi-judicial role myself, I would caution others who have a similar bad taste in their mouth to think before they publish grievances, as intentions can be misconstrued. Fight your case in a court of law, not the court of public opinion.

(The author is an Attorney Referee at the Washtenaw County Friend of the Court; however, the views expressed in this column are her own.) 

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