Nearly two years after the death of his 21-month-old son, Jonathan Vanderhagen remained angry. The toddler, Killian, died of hydrocephalus just three days after his father filed for full custody from the boy’s mother in 2017, and Vanderhagen saw Facebook as an outlet for not just his grief but as a way to honor his son’s spirit in photos of the boy laughing and playing with musical instruments.

It was also a way to lash out at the family court judge, Macomb County Circuit Court Judge Rachel Rancilio, who oversaw the custody case in Michigan through which Vanderhagen hoped to win sole custody of his son after alleging the boy’s mother was not taking him to important doctor appointments.

“My Son’s case 100% contradicts everything you claim to represent,” he wrote in one post on July 8, accompanied by photos of Rancilio hugging her father at a ceremony to join the Michigan governor’s task force on child abuse. “So wait Rachel you claim to be an advocate for ‘child abuse & neglect’ … very interesting … does my son Killian not fall into that category, does he not matter ?!?!”

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In several posts from early July, he shared some of the judge’s personal social media posts and suggested that Rancilio needed to be removed from her seat on the bench.

The harsh words left the judge upset. What Vanderhagen viewed as free speech, Rancilio deemed a threat. The 35-year-old Chesterfield Township, Mich., man was arrested for his Facebook posts in July, and spent almost two months in jail awaiting a verdict.

On Thursday, Vanderhagen was acquitted on the misdemeanor charge of malicious use of a telecommunication device, concluding the case that has gripped the Detroit area for months and rekindled debates about what content represents a legitimate threat on social media.

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“I am thankful the jury could see the truth,” Vanderhagen told reporters outside the courthouse.

In September 2017, Killian died of complications related to hydrocephalus, a health condition he was born with, the Macomb Daily reported. The father alleged that Killian’s mother wasn’t taking him to doctor’s appointments, but police did not press criminal charges in the boy’s death. He had been fighting for sole custody, but the boy was living with his mother when he died.

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On social media, the bearded and tattooed dad frequently writes about his son. He shares photos with his black hair slicked back, laughing with his son or kissing the top of the smiling baby’s head. He posts items and memes featuring Charlie Brown and Snoopy, “Peanuts” characters that were special to his son.

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Not even life it self can separate us Killian <3 The next chapter in our story will be our music journey, I will take you around the world just like i always promised i would 🎼🎹🖤

Posted by Jonathan Vanderhagen on Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The same online space where Vanderhagen shared memories of better days was also where the father blamed the court for not moving more swiftly in his custody case.

“I wont stop till changes are made, people are held accountable, careers are ended, & these kids get the justice they deserve,” he wrote in one of his Facebook posts.

After being made aware of Vanderhagen’s Facebook posts, Rancilio called the Macomb County Sheriff’s Office, which assigned an officer to investigate the content. After watching two videos and reviewing posts in which Vanderhagen accused Rancilio of being corrupt and elitist, the officer concluded the judge wasn’t at risk.

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“At no time does he threaten harm or violence,” the officer’s police report says. “At this time, it does not appear there is any threat to Judge Rancilio.”

Despite that conclusion, the sheriff’s office increased patrols near the judge’s house. Vanderhagen was arraigned and his bond was set at a $10,000 on July 11, according to court records.

Vanderhagen, who paid $1,000 to get out of jail, then promptly returned to his keyboard. He posted several new complaints about how his son had been treated by the court.

A week later, he appeared in court again and a judge determined he had violated the terms of his bond. Among the posts the prosecutor used to paint Vanderhagen as menacing was a photo of himself holding a shovel with Rancilio’s initials photoshopped on the handle in neat, cursive lettering.

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“Dada back to digging,” he wrote. “You best believe im gonna dig up all the skeletons in this court’s closet.”

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

When she saw that post, Rancilio testified in court, she feared for her life. A single mother of two children, the judge told the court she hired a security guard, installed a new home alarm system and didn’t let her kids play outside alone. Prosecutors argued the bereaved father had crossed a line by collecting information and screen shots from her personal social media accounts — moving from criticism to online stalking.

“I thought he was going to kill me and bury me after he was done,” she said on the witness stand Tuesday, according to the Detroit Free Press. “I was scared. I was afraid something bad was going to happen to myself or my children.”

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The prosecution argued in court that both the volume and content of Vanderhagen’s posts, especially the ones that included photos of her family members, inspired real fear. Assistant Macomb Prosecuting Attorney Elizabeth Rittinger said the threats did not need to be direct to frighten the judge.

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“It is undisputed that Rachel Rancilio felt threatened,” Rittinger told the Macomb Daily.

It’s not unusual for judges to receive threats on social media and pursue charges against the posters. But those threats are typically more specific and violent than Vanderhagen’s Facebook diatribes.

Two men threatened to beat an Ohio judge in 2018 who presided over juvenile cases. Earlier this year, an Illinois man who had been scolded by a judge for disrupting court posted her photo and address with the caption “she is going to get it.” But whether threats — even explicit ones — made on social media are “true threats” is a thorny issue that has risen all the way to the Supreme Court, which set a very high bar for defining a threat in its 2015 opinion for Elonis v. United States. To be a threat, the court ruled in an 8-to-1 decision, the poster has to intend to scare someone.

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When Vanderhagen was arrested a second time on July 24 for violating a no-contact order by writing more posts on Facebook, his attorney argued the father didn’t mean for Rancilio to feel afraid.

“There’s no threats,” argued attorney Nicholas Somberg at a bail hearing after his client was arrested again and held on a $500,000 bond, the Macomb Daily reported. “There’s no reaching out to Judge Rancilio. There’s been no contact. There’s no inadvertent messages. All the messages after the no contact (order) are all very innocuous. There’s things going on behind the scenes, so what?”

A Michigan jury agreed. The jurors deliberated for 26 minutes on Thursday before Vanderhagen was acquitted and released.

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“I think that Jonathan should continue speaking the truth, I think he should continue researching our elected public officials and telling people what happened to him and warning other people about the court system,” Somberg said after the verdict.

Rancilio did not immediately return a request for comment late Thursday night.

Vanderhagen told the court he had been digging up information about the court to warn people about his bad experiences. He added that he did not mean to threaten or harass the judge.

“It’s not to terrorize her,” he said, according to the Detroit Free Press, “it’s to warn people.”

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