Greg Swann fights a bitter child-custody battle--on the World Wide Web

Greg Swann doesn't need Court TV. And when he takes his case to the people, he certainly doesn't need Geraldo, Sally Jessy or Ricki carnival-barking on his behalf. That's because Swann, a Mesa man fighting a bitter battle for custody of a child, has found a more direct way of airing his domestic laundry--on the Internet.

For months, Swann has been chronicling online the sordid details of what hecalls "my bitter, incredibly stupid divorce." Though the divorce case hasn't yet gone to trial--it begins next week inMesa--Swann has been addressing his own virtual jury of sorts on the World Wide Web, where he self-publishes a detail-laden account of the domestic set-to. Yet Swann isn't your typical tabloid exhibitionist; when defending his public diary, he reaches for loftier terms like "free-speech rights" and "the cleansing power of reason."

Not everyone sees Swann's Internet exposé quite that way, least of all his estranged wife. In January, Ann Swann's lawyer in the divorce proceedings filed a motion charging that Greg Swann's Internet project is actually an exercise in tormenting his future ex. As the complaint puts it, Swann's postings to the World Wide Web, "which have been widely disseminated to the public, are being done only for the purposes of harassing" his wife and her fiancé. Ann Swann's attorney, Sandra Fromm, asked that Greg Swann be found in contempt of court for violating a law that forbids litigating spouses from "molesting, harassing, disturbing the peace of, or committing an assault or battery of the other party or any natural or adopted child of the parties."

The Swanns' saga was already knottier than a pine box, and about as comfortable for all parties involved. The child-custody fight had been liberally garnished with accusations of infidelity, recriminations that physical threats had been made, legal skirmishes over child-support payments, the rhetoric of the father's-rights movement and, of course, legal bills.

And now the Internet has weighed into the brawl. Greg Swann sees his wife's legal maneuver as an assault on his constitutional free-speech rights. So rather than back down, Swann, an outspoken libertarian, defiantly uploaded the text of the motion for contempt to his Web page. As Swann saw it, the legal maneuver was nothing more than an "attempt to intimidate me into effecting what is called 'voluntary self-censorship' out of the fear that I might be found in contempt of court."

Proving in court that words posted in cyberspace can constitute "harassment" could pose a significant challenge. Ultimately, the argument could pit the First Amendment against Arizona's family-law statutes.

Swann's free-speech defense might seem curious given the soapy appeal of his Web page, in which heexcerpts some hiswife's e-mail to her"paramour" (Swann's word), describes the stormy last days of his marriage ("That night ... we had a terrible row, at the end of which I picked her up and put her outside the house") and rather sanctimoniously lectures her on her shortcomings as a parent. Swann seems to be aware of this, well, thematic dissonance. "If some craven voyeur," he writes, "finds his furtive delight in the exposure of what is, perhaps, the most amazingly Internet-documented divorce in history, so be it."

It's true that you catch more voyeuristic flies with honey than vinegar, and on his Web site, Swann appeals to any potentially lurking journalists to take up his story. But Swann claims that he aims neither to intimidate his wife nor to invade her privacy. The details about their tempestuous final days together appear online because, Swann explains, he wants to "make plain that I have nothing to hide."

Swann versus Swann may be the ultimate information-age family tiff. What used to erupt behind closed doors or in anisolated courtroom now can be broadcast tothe world from a home PC, complete with "hypertext" footnotes, color graphics and elaborate details. Any aggrieved party can mount a case and act asjudge and jury, too. Greg Swann is a self-employed "desktop publisher" who designs direct-mail fliers. In the evenings, he writes a seemingly endless series of essays, short stories and full-length books that he self-publishes onhis Web site. "Greg Swann Writes"--the descriptive, if rather heraldic, title ofhis home page--ladles not only details from his custody battle, but also his enthusiasm for the works of Ayn Rand, science fiction, the father's-rights movement and the piercing nature of his reason. In short, Greg Swann is not a man of few words.

And he's the only party in the marital dispute who's eager--thrilled, even--to talk about the case to a journalist. His own attorney, David L. Rose, declined to comment, as did Ann Swann's lawyer. Ann herself would make only a cautious, lawyer-approved statement about hoping to find a positive resolution to the dispute and not further "fanning the flames of acrimony." It seems that everyone except Greg Swann would prefer to argue the case in a court of law.

Swann sees the Internet as a kind of court of last resort, where he can expose the injustice of an obscure Arizona statute that he believes has robbed him of his 7year-old daughter. Swann's trouble stems from the fact that the state of Arizona doesn't acknowledge him as her father.

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