Free Speech

A Michigan Man Has Been Acquitted by a Jury for Criticizing a County Judge on Facebook

It took a jury 26 minutes to decide that Jonathan Vanderhagen wasn't guilty.

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According to Jonathan Vanderhagen's lawyer, it took a jury all of 26 minutes and 8 seconds to decide that he was not guilty of using his Facebook account to threaten a county judge. Reason previously covered the Michigan father's free speech case, which began with a custody battle two years ago.

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 following post to accuse Vanderhagen of violating his bond conditions later that month.

Dada back to digging & you best believe im gonna dig up all the skeletons in this court's closet ????

Posted by Jonathan Vanderhagen on Monday, July 8, 2019

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 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."

A jury acquitted Vanderhagen on Thursday of the charge.

Somberg told me that he was "so happy" that justice was served for both Vanderhagen and his son. He used a portion of his closing argument, which was provided to Reason, to remind the jury that the case was first and foremost about Vanderhagen's First Amendment right to free speech:

Our [Founding Fathers] guaranteed us the right to a Jury Trial for situations just like this. That the founders understood absolute power corrupts absolutely and that we should be judged by a jury of our peers, not the government. You all should feel lucky to be sitting for such an important trial. The verdict that you come back with will send one of two very different messages to the people of Macomb County. We either have the right to free speech, or if the people of Macomb criticize our elected officials they better watch out.

Vanderhagen also provided a statemen saying that he was "beyond thankful" to be a free man. He also thanked Somberg for his work on the case.

"The past [two] months have been incredibly hard but it was a journey [I] was willing to take to be the voice my son needed it most," he said. "Hearing of everyone's support while [I] was locked up is what kept me going [and] most importantly kept Killian's spirit alive, [I] know he is smiling down proud [and] feeling like the most special boy in the world."

The original Reason report can be read here.

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