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 expos 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 fianc. 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.
Although she calls Swann "Dad," she is not his biological progeny. Under Arizona law, a nonbiological father who hasn't adopted his child has no legal right to guardianship. In fact, in Arizona, the "biological father," after impregnating a woman and skipping town for years, perhaps never even meeting the fruit of his coital labor, can waltz back into the child's life and wrest custodial rights away from the hapless guy who did all the work raising the kid.
As Swann puts it online, "Because of a brutal irony in Arizona statute and case law, my fatherhood of my daughter has been denied. ... I am said to be not her father because I failed to ejaculate in her behalf, and a man who did nothing but ejaculate and then cheerfully ignored her for six and a half years is held to be her father."
Swann married the girl's mother seven years ago, after she told him she was pregnant by a boyfriend. Swann now explains his proposal of marriage as "not asmart thing to do. But I was ready to be a father, frankly. And so here it was, a family ready-made. Like moving into a spec home."
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It never occurred to Swann to legally adopt the child. Had he done so, the statewould have recognized him as the girl's legal father. Instead, Swann now finds himself mired in legal complications: Late last year, Ann Swann and her daughter's biological father--now Ann's fianc--filed a petition of paternity with the courts. Swann claims the petition, which he never disputed, was a legal tactic to deny Swann a chance to fight for custody of the child.
Swann explains that, ultimately, his reason for broadcasting his domestic trauma to the world is to push for the reform of an antiquated law. "What we have here," says Swann, "is cowboy law--in Arizona, this law goes back to the days before statehood. It's basically the same kind of law that governs mining claims: You staked this claim 195 years ago, and therefore it's still yours even though you've done nothing to improve it."
Frustrated by a series of rejected appeals to the court, Swann began arguing his case on the Internet last year. He also dispatched electronic appeals to various Internet interest groups, urging them to write to legislators and demand that the antiquated law be repealed.
And so it goes in digital divorce court. As the convoluted case spills into nonvirtual court next week, Swann continues to make his case on the Web. "The courts are a very highly structured environment where nobody gets to talk," says Swann. "My lawyer gets to speak, but it comes outsounding like lawyerese. The system is really designed to prevent anyone fromtalking. The Internet is a way to talk about this case, and it's been very helpful.