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Free Speech

Court Upholds Denial of Restraining Order for "Online Rants That [We]re False" About Petitioner

The trial court reasoned: "You guys ... have a spat on Facebook.... Nobody cares about these s[p]ats. Just block them and move on."


From Griffin v. Stowe, decided yesterday by the California Court of Appeal (Presiding Justice Manuel Ramirez, joined by Justices Marsha Slough and Richard Fields):

Daelani Griffin filed a petition for a harassment restraining order against … Julian Noel [Stowe]. {Despite her traditionally male name, Stowe is female.} She claimed Stowe made threatening and insulting social media posts about her and induced others to do so. The trial court denied the petition. It commented, among other things, "This stuff … doesn't even come close to the kind of harassment that's required for a civil restraining order. You guys … have a spat on Facebook…. Just block them and move on…." …

According to Griffin's sworn petition, Stowe lived in the State of Washington. They met in second grade but had not seen each other for 13 years.

According to Griffin, Stowe used her name and likeness in "online rants that [we]re false." Stowe sent her harassing messages and had "other ladies whom I do not know" send her harassing messages. Stowe had sent her a video saying that Griffin had "a mental illness." Stowe had described Griffin as "a sugar baby, a prostitute, and a cheap hooker." Stowe had threatened to have Griffin deported and to "find [her] in California and beat the shit out of [her]."

Griffin would block Stowe, but Stowe would just open new accounts….

Screenshots attached to the petition showed that Stowe had multiple online accounts. The posts from her shown in the attachment were innocuous and seemingly not related to Griffin at all. Griffin claimed that one post by Stowe, showing only the top of someone's head, was from a "[v]ideo of me talking about [an] unnamed person." Another post said, "I wasn't attacking you unlike you were. Being crazy towards me and my family. Good try though."

One post was by one Hana Knowlton. Griffin identified Knowlton as a "[r]andom associated friend to Julian." It said: "You've got some balls speaking on Rylee and Julian. There 10x the woman you'll ever be. You're a joke. Don't come crying when your lifestyle doesn't work. Because Rylee and Julian have better jobs than you. You're petty and worthless. And the reason covid19 will be here a month from now. Stay home. And maybe learn how to do your makeup and not look like a 12 year old trying to damn hard…. Take your wanna be jordon woods {[a]pparently referring to reality TV personality Jordyn Wood} looking ass out of here and leave them alone. You had no right to speak on anything. You're scum."

Another post was by one Lysa Cole. Griffin labeled Cole a "friend or random account associated with Julian." It said, "Bruh you need to chill out and stop harassing people. It's absolutely ridiculous and childish…. Find someone else to do with your time. Like working on your closure or take pics that don't look like your being hurt." …

In March 2021, after a hearing, the trial court denied a restraining order. It commented: "[L]et me tell you the kind of stuff that gets heard down here…. I had a young lady who says she was sexually assaulted, and requesting an order. This stuff … doesn't even come close to the kind of harassment that's required for a civil restraining order.

"You guys … have a spat on Facebook…. Nobody cares about these s[p]ats. Just block them and move on…. If I put restraining orders on people, I'm giving them orders to do things—or not to do things that they, otherwise, are legally allowed to do. They lose their rights to possess firearms. For me, that's a big deal. They have to stay away from areas. It goes on their FBI record. So every time a police officer pulls them over to stop, and if they run a rap sheet they see a restraining order, it will change the whole nature of the contact.

"But I can tell you, a restraining order requires unlawful harassment. A lot more than I'm seeing here. So the Court is going to deny the request for a restraining order." …

Code of Civil Procedure section 527.6 (section 527.6) allows "[a] person who has suffered harassment" to seek "an order after hearing prohibiting harassment …."

"Harassment" includes "a knowing and willful course of conduct directed at a specific person that seriously alarms, annoys, or harasses the person, and that serves no legitimate purpose. The course of conduct must be that which as would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress, and must actually cause substantial emotional distress to the plaintiff."

A "course of conduct" is defined as "a pattern of conduct composed of a series of acts over a period of time, however short, evidencing a continuity of purpose …."

"At the hearing, … [i]f the judge finds by clear and convincing evidence that unlawful harassment exists, an order shall issue prohibiting the harassment." …

"[T]he question before the appellate court is whether the record as a whole contains substantial evidence from which a reasonable fact finder could have found it highly probable that the fact was true. Consistent with well-established principles governing review for sufficiency of the evidence, in making this assessment the appellate court must view the record in the light most favorable to the prevailing party below and give due deference to how the trier of fact may have evaluated the credibility of witnesses, resolved conflicts in the evidence, and drawn reasonable inferences from the evidence."

[In this case], the trial court could find that Stowe did make these statements, but they would not cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress. People say "You're crazy" all the time, to express disagreement; saying this need not cause substantial emotional distress.

Being called a "prostitute" or "a cheap hooker" is no fun, but it is not hard to shake off the insult when it is not true. The threat to have Griffin deported was not necessarily distressing at all, as she was an American citizen. And finally, as Stowe was in Washington and Griffin was in California, the threat to "beat the shit out of [her]" would not necessarily cause substantial emotional distress.

There was no evidence of the period of time over which these alleged statements were supposedly made. If they were made all at once—or even, in a fit of pique, over a few days—they would not necessarily cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress. There also was no evidence of what led Stowe to verbally abuse Griffin. If Griffin wronged Stowe somehow, it might not be unreasonable for Stowe to call her mentally ill and a prostitute and to threaten to beat her—all metaphorically—and Griffin would be aware of that.

Aside from Griffin's allegation, there was no evidence that Stowe caused Knowlton and Cole to send their respective messages. Griffin did not explain how she knew that Stowe did; thus, the trial court could reasonably disbelieve her. In any event, as far as the record shows, these posts were one-off events that a reasonable person could put behind him or her. Cole's post was not even particularly insulting—it merely said Griffin was "ridiculous and childish" and looked "hurt" in photos.

As the trial court observed, it appeared that Griffin could just choose not to view the offensive posts. She admitted that there was at least one video that she did not watch. She did claim that, when she blocked Stowe, Stowe would just open up a new account. Even so, the accounts shown in the attachment to the petition all had "Julian" in the name and featured Stowe's photo. Thus, Griffin could easily avoid viewing them. She did not claim that anyone else whom she knew ever saw the posts.

Finally, there was no evidence that the alleged harassment was likely to continue. "An injunction is authorized only when it appears that wrongful acts are likely to recur. [Citation.]" Again, there was no evidence of how long the alleged harassment went on. Griffin admitted that, at the time of the hearing, she had not heard from Stowe for three or four months; Stowe claimed it had been more like four or five months. And again, the posts by Knowlton and Cole were apparently one-offs.

In sum, Griffin's evidence of purported harassment was not "uncontradicted and unimpeached"; it left ample "room for a judicial determination that it was insufficient to support a finding," particularly under the "clear and convincing" standard of proof.

For these reasons, the trial court could properly deny the petition….

Griffin argues that Stowe's conduct was criminal, because it constituted stalking, repeated electronic communication with the intent to harass, posting personal identifying information for the purposes of causing harassment by a third party, and making a criminal threat. She also argues that Stowe's conduct was civilly actionable as false-light invasion of privacy, defamation, and—because it caused her to suffer anxiety—under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

She does not lay out the elements of any of these crimes and causes of action; she does not explain how Stowe's conduct satisfied those elements. "To demonstrate error, appellant must present meaningful legal analysis supported by citations to authority and citations to facts in the record that support the claim of error. [Citations.]" We deem the contention forfeited.

Griffin also does not explain why a crime or civil wrong is necessarily "harassment" as defined in section 527.6. For example, a couple of instances of defamation would not necessarily constitute a "course of conduct."

In any event, as already discussed, the trial court could reasonably find that Stowe did not actually say Griffin had a mental illness, call her a prostitute, threaten to have her deported, or threaten to beat her. On that view of the evidence, there was no crime and no civil wrong….