|The Facebook meme that helped bring|
criminal charges against Nonathan Vanderhagen
for "harassing" a Michigan judge.
A Michigan jury took less than 30 minutes last week to find a Macomb County man not guilty of harassing a judge by publishing critical posts about her on Facebook. That Jonathan Vanderhagen actually faced a criminal trial on such a flimsy charge -- in a country where some form of free expression is supposed to be a coveted constitutional right -- makes this one of the nuttiest court cases in our 12 years of writing Legal Schnauzer.
We've seen plenty of cases where juries rendered nonsensical verdicts. But in this instance, jurors clearly had their heads out of their rectums -- which cannot be said for the judge and prosecutors who caused charges to be filed. The case has particular resonance here because we face a similar, and ongoing, effort to silence our online voice.
How goofy was the case in Michigan? A report at voicenews.com helps answer that question:
A Chesterfield Township man was acquitted of a misdemeanor charge on the allegation he made social-media threats against a Macomb County judge.
A six-person jury found Jonathan Vanderhagen not guilty Thursday following a three-day trial in 41B District Court on a charge of malicious use of a telecommunications device for several Facebook posts last July regarding family Judge Rachel Rancilio of Macomb County Circuit Court in Mount Clemens.
The panel deliberated only 26 minutes.
Vanderhagen told The Macomb Daily after the verdict that he prayed for "the truth to come out" each night in his county jail cell, where he has been held for nearly two months.
Can you believe that? An American spent almost two months in jail because he criticized a public official -- largely because the official, Judge Rachel Rancilio, took his criticism to be a threat. If the judge has such sensitive skin, perhaps she needs to find another profession.
Did Vanderhagen have reasonable grounds to be displeased with Judge Rancilio? He sure as heck did. It all grew from a child-custody case that launched two years ago. From a report at reason.com:
In 2017, Vanderhagen petitioned the court for sole custody over his 2-year-old son, Killian. Vanderhagen believed Killian's mother to be an unfit guardian. Macomb County Circuit Court Judge Rachel Rancilio, the presiding judge, denied the request and Killian was permitted to continue living with his mother. Killian passed away that September while in his mother's care.
Authorities concluded that a preexisting medical condition contributed to Killian's death. Vanderhagen, however, blamed Rancilio's custody ruling for contributing to his son's death, which he believes would not have happened had Killian been in his care. He used his Facebook page to say as much. For two years, he posted about Killian's mother, the court system, and Rancilio—at times using Rancilio's own public Facebook posts and Pinterest pins to criticize her ruling.
Rancilio was made aware of the posts and an investigation was opened against Vanderhagen. "At no point does [Vanderhagen] threaten harm or violence towards Rancilio," Sgt. Jason Conklin of the Macomb County Sheriff's Office, the investigating officer, concluded in his case report.
Nevertheless, Vanderhagen was charged with the malicious use of telecommunication services, a misdemeanor, in July. "Malicious use" means that Vanderhagen was accused of using a telecommunication service with the intention of terrorizing, intimidating, threatening, or harassing Rancilio. Vanderhagen was ordered to refrain from engaging in direct or third-party contact with Rancilio, including sending "inadvertent messages by way of Facebook."
Prosecutors and presiding District Judge Sebastian Lucido used the meme at the beginning of this post to accuse Vanderhagen of violating his bond conditions later that month. Here's more from Reason:
The Facebook post features Vanderhagen holding a shovel with the initials R.R., standing for Rachel Rancilio. The post's caption read, "Dada back to digging [and] you best believe [I'm] gonna dig up all the skeletons in this court's closet."In short, authorities concocted bogus criminal charges against a citizen because his legitimate and lawful criticisms caused a hyper-sensitive judge to get a case of the squirmies.
In addition to the Facebook post not being threatening, Nicholas Somberg, Vanderhagen's lawyer, told me that the post was created three days before Vanderhagen received his bond conditions.
Somberg also argued in an emergency bond hearing that Vanderhagen had a First Amendment right to criticize legal authorities. Judge Lucido replied that there were "limits" to free speech. When Somberg asked Lucido to clarify which of the Facebook posts presented to the court were threatening, Lucido said that they 'alluded' to the judge and did not explain his reasoning any further.
Lucido raised Vanderhagen's bond to $500,000, an amount Somberg told Reason was tantamount to a bond "you would expect for a murderer or rapist."
We are facing a similar threat to free speech -- and a free press -- right now. Details are ahead in an upcoming post.