Freedom of Speech, Civil Rights and a Federal Lawsuit in Cobb CountyWritten on December 30, 2014
The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States protects freedom of speech in this country. However, the protection is not unlimited. There are certain things, in particular situations, that you can’t say. You can’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater or make threats against the President. If you do make those statements, there could be serious consequences.
The Cobb County Board of Commissioners recently settled a federal lawsuit with a Marietta woman after she made obscene and vulgar comments to police while riding her bike. The case came down to the fundamentals of freedom of speech as well as the law in Georgia. The lawsuit stemmed from a 2012 incident. The woman who made the vulgar comments to two Cobb County Police Officers was arrested and jailed for disorderly conduct.
Disorderly conduct is a section of the Georgia Code that can be interpreted many different ways by law enforcement officers. There are two particular areas of this code section that were at the center of this case.
- Without provocation, uses to or of another person in such other person’s presence, opprobrious or abusive words which by their very utterance tend to incite to an immediate breach of the peace, that is to say, words which as a matter of common knowledge and under ordinary circumstances will, when used to or of another person in such other person’s presence, naturally tend to provoke violent resentment, that is, words commonly called “fighting words”
- Without provocation, uses obscene and vulgar or profane language in the presence of or by telephone to a person under the age of 14 years, which threatens an immediate breach of the peace.
The woman claimed that the police said there were children around when she used the obscene language and the very nature of the comments threatened the officers. Lawyers for the plaintiff (the woman) argued that since the woman didn’t get off her bike to confront the officers the language couldn’t be classified as “fighting words” and there was no immediate “breach of the peace.” The woman’s attorneys insisted her comments were protected under the First Amendment. The lawsuit claimed her rights were violated by the police when she was arrested.
Most citizens don’t go around swearing at the police. It’s usually not a good idea, and is just plain disrespectful to the men and women who risk their lives to protect the communities in which they work. This lawsuit does, however, put the disorderly conduct statute under a microscope. Police often use disorderly conduct as a catchall to make an arrest. Just simply swearing, without “breaching the peace,” may not be grounds for police to make an arrest. Of course, law enforcement officials ultimately make the initial decision of “if the peace was breached”, or not. It’s also the discretion of the officers whether or not to pull their handcuffs out and take someone to jail.
If you have been arrested for disorderly conduct, or think your rights may have been violated, call The Silverbach Group today. We are experienced attorneys who can help protect your rights, your reputation and your criminal record. You can reach us at (770) 635-0334.