Don't Diss After Divorce

Texas court overturns jail time for woman's e-mails.

In a series of 84 e-mails, Gayle Magness ridiculed her ex-husband's weight, his sexual prowess and his new wife.

The vitriol she spewed earned Magness an 18-month jail sentence when a Denton County judge ruled in 2007 that she had violated a divorce decree that banned vulgar and offensive language between the ex-spouses. The Texas Supreme Court, however, unanimously overturned Magness' jail sentence, ruling the judge could not enforce the contempt ruling with jail time. The ruling last week narrowly upheld a judge's ability to order divorcing couples to refrain from communicating in "vulgar, profane, obscene or indecent language, in person, in writing or by telephone."

What the court didn't address is the broader issue of whether such a decree, which is standard in many Texas counties, is an unconstitutional violation of a right to self-expression under the First Amendment.

Magness' attorney, Bill Trantham, said he was pleased for his client but disappointed that the ruling didn't address the free speech issues.

"People are going to say things between spouses that somebody is not going to like," Trantham said. "It's not the business of the state, I think, to regulate that type of speech."

Magness and Raymond Coppock divorced after 23 years of marriage in 2004. During oral arguments before the Supreme Court in December, Coppock's attorney said the ban on offensive language was added to the divorce settlement when the separation grew increasingly nasty.

Three months after the divorce, Magness began sending e-mails that called Coppock names, accusing him of financial irregularities and threatened criminal charges. Coppock said he couldn't just delete the e-mails because his ex-wife had custody of their 17-year-old son, who had been injured in a car wreck, and he needed updates on his medical condition.

By early 2007, Coppock filed a legal complaint. District Judge Vicki Isaacks sentenced Magness to 18 months in jail, simultaneously reducing the sentence to two weekends in jail and three years of community supervision. When Magness didn't appear for her first weekend in jail, an arrest warrant was issued and she filed her appeal.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that the injunction against Magness was defective because it did not properly say that its prohibitions were mandatory. She could not be held in contempt and ordered jailed for violating an invalid order, the court ruled.

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