Bashing your ex in public may be free speech, but is it in your children’s best interests? – Written by Lylah Alphonse
It started out as a way to vent about his acrimonious divorce and bitter custody dispute, but three and a half years later his blog, The Psycho Ex Wife, has turned into a battle over free speech and due process. And while the adults argue over whose rights are being trampled on, the real issue remains: Is publicly bashing a parent ever in the best interests of his or her kids?
Anthony Morelli, 43, and his girlfriend, Misty Weaver-Ostinato, started their blog in December 2007, and still insist that it’s never been about Morelli’s ex-wife but about their own experiences with divorce. “We have been through 3 custody evaluations, 6 false contempt petitions, 3 custody schedules, 1 psych evaluation, 1 false child abuse allegation, 2 false calls to the local sheriff’s office, 4 years of parental alienation, $80,000, 1 break in, 1 case of stalking, 1 restraining order, and we FINALLY have 50/50 custody of their children,” reads the first post, which was written Weaver-Ostinato, a divorced mother of two who says that she gets along with her own ex. “We hope you enjoy watching the trainwreck, we hope you find the help if you are in a similar position, and we hope you will share us with your friends.”
The blog quickly grew into a huge community, with a recommended reading list and a secure forum in which registered members discussed everything from mental health to legal issues (Morelli told Phillyburbs.com that the site was getting 200,000 hits a day). The “cast of characters” were identified by initials that didn’t correspond to their real names and no pictures were published, but the descriptions were brutal, and the blog posts, which often featured emails from his ex or transcripts of voice mails left for him by her, were filled with accusations of alcoholism and abuse, name-calling, and venom.
“I tried to convey the feelings that were elicited at that time in a way that connects with people who were going through similar situations. ” Morelli said on The Today Show on Tuesday. “There are untold legions of families who are going through this.”
Morelli’s ex-wife, Allison Morelli, 42, let him know that she had discovered the site in August 2009. “No matter what I do, there’s a negative spin somehow,” she said on The Today Show. “The website spins everything.” After that, the back-and-forth on The Psycho Ex-Wife grew more and more brutal, and on June 6, 2011, after reading print-outs of the site during a hearing at which both parents asked for full custody of their 10- and 12-year-old sons, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Judge Diane E. Gibbons judge ordered Morelli to shut The Psycho Ex-Wife down.
“Father shall take down that website and shall never on any public media make any reference to mother at all, nor any reference to the relationship between mother and children, nor shall he make any reference to his children other than ‘happy birthday’ or other significant school events,” Gibbons ordered according to court records. “Mother will not consume any alcohol at all and will continue in alcohol treatment.”
“I don’t care if you guys fight in private,” Gibbons said in her ruling. “I don’t care what you do in private. But you are not going to do it in front of these kids.”
Anthony Morellli complied—sort of. The landing page of The Psycho Ex-Wife now redirects readers to a new site, Save The Psycho Ex-Wife, where he and Weaver-Ostinato are raising money to defend themselves in court, but links from Google to individual posts on the old site are still active (though each page now displays a notice about the shutdown order, a link to the fundraising site, and an updated tagline that reads “1st Amendment 101” instead of “I’m not happy until you’re not happy”). And now he’s hired another lawyer, to appeal Gibbons’ order to Superior Court.
He contends that his sons would never have known about the website if their mother hadn’t told them about it. And even if the vitriol on the site could have harmed the children, it would have been more appropriate to have ordered him to secure the site rather than eliminate it completely, Kevin Handy, Morelli’s appellate lawyer, told The Philadelphia Inquirer.
“I’m not saying that what [Morelli] says on there is a good idea,” Handy said of the website, but ordering him to shut it down was a violation of Morelli’s First Amendment right to free speech. The judge also violated Morelli’s 14th Amendment right to due process, Handy said, by issuing her ruling without allowing Morelli to defend himself or offer any evidence.
UCLA law school professor and First Amendment expert Eugene Volokh reacted to Gibbons’ ruling on his own website, The Volokh Conspiracy. “The court order categorically orders the removal of a Web site, and prohibits all public statements — factually accurate or not — by one person about another person,” he wrote. “That strikes me as a pretty clear First Amendment violation; whatever the scope of family courts’ authority to protect children’s best interests might be, it can’t extend to criminalizing one adult’s public speech about another adult.”
Legal experts agree that even offensive speech is protected as long as it isn’t obscene, defamatory, or threatening to national security. It’s the same reason that the Phelps family, of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, is permitted to protest and use hate speech during soldier’s funerals. The posts that Morelli and Weaver-Ostinato wrote at The Psycho Ex-Wife may have been libelous, but libel is a civil court issue, not a criminal one.
“I just wish people didn’t have this perception of me,” Allison Morrelli admitted to The Philadelphia Inquirer. She discussed her alcohol abuse in court, and told the newspaper “I’ve done my own damage, but I’ve owned it, and I’m trying to be a better person for my kids.”
“What the judge said in court made perfect sense to me,” she added. “Stop doing what you’re doing, and do the right thing for your children.”