By Logan Quirk
Being arrested by the police is, of course, a terrifying period fraught with tension and raised tempers, which may result in you mouthing off, screaming profanities, and swearing at a police officer, especially if you feel their presence and your arrest is not justified. But can you curse at a police officer when you feel like he is picking on you?
This question bears a lot of weight because there is documentation where some are cuffed and jailed for swearing and arguing with the police, but others have gotten away with it. What is the real score when it comes to cussing out the police? Is it legal or not? What should you do if you find yourself in this kind of situation?
It is bad manners to scream and curse at cops, who already face a hard task of keeping citizens safe. However, when it comes to legality, it can be complicated because certain parameters gauge if you are committing a misdemeanor or a crime against obstruction of justice, or you’re merely being a belligerent and outspoken person that’s exercising your rights to express yourself, never mind if they brand you as having no manners.
The Tenets of the First Amendment
This is a confusing topic because, as stated in the Constitution of the United States of America, the First Amendment protects free speech. If you feel a cop is being unreasonable or is picking on you, you have the freedom to express yourself and tell him off. In general, police officers cannot arrest people, nor can the court of law consider them guilty for what they say.
The First Amendment covers your right to free speech and freedom of expression. These are sacred rights that serve as the cornerstone of a democratic government. You also have the right to complain and redress your grievances against the government, which includes their agents like police officers.
This provision within the constitution is the bastion that protects the freedom of every citizen. They did not add this amendment to encourage people to mouth off and be sassy, but it is there to protect minority speech from the majority.
When you analyze the situation, majority speech needs no protection because it is standard and widely accepted. However, the protection of minority speech is vital even when that speech is mean, rude, or just plain dumb. Without these statutes, police can bully people into staying silent for fear of being arrested.
Free speech is there to encourage people to exchange ideas. Limiting free speech because of out of this world ideas prevents the robust exchange of ideas, which is essential to have in a developing nation. Mankind can’t settle important issues unless everyone is free to discuss issues. If you curtail free speech, you also limit a critical mind.
However, these rights to freedom of speech and expression are not absolute. They end when you impinge on the rights of other people, and you begin to hurt others because of your words. Free speech gives you the freedom to exercise your free will and to stand up for what you believe in. The tenets of free speech believe you have the capability to determine what people consider as hateful or hurtful speech. Based on this judgment, you have the freedom to filter what comes out of your mouth.
If they cite you for violating the First Amendment, such as shouting expletives at a police officer, you must get in touch with a reputable lawyer, like the members of the Quirk Law Group, right away. You need someone with the knowledge and expertise to defend your spoken words and actions. We could reverse that misdemeanor they slapped you with because of the First Amendment.
The Limits to Free Speech
They may give you the latitude to express your crazy opinions. You can even complain against mediocre service or unjust treatment. You have a lot of leeway to say stupid and crazy things. No police officer has the right to intimidate you or deprive you of this liberty just because the officer is in a position of power.
However, there are limits to free speech because you cannot harm others to get what you want. For this reason, you cannot use speech for force, fraud, defamation, nor can you incite others to rebel and cause harm to authorities. Consider the following limits to free speech:
Obscenity is Not Protected Speech
The question now is defining what is obscene and what is not. Cursing or swearing is not what the courts consider obscene. Pornography also falls under this category of free speech, which is why there are many porn sites out there. Obscenity is something worse.
In 1973, the US Supreme Court, in the case of Miller Versus California, created a three-part test to determine whether speech or expression can be labeled obscene. The provisions of this Miller test include:
- Whether “an average person applying contemporary community standards” would find the work taken as a whole would appeal to prurient (lustful, lubricious, salacious) interests.
- Whether the work describes or depicts in a patently offensive method or sexual conduct.
- Whether the work taken as a whole has no redeeming quality and is lacking in serious literary, scientific, political, or artistic merit.
Cursing at a police officer is not obscene. However, child porn is not protected speech. This also includes images showing torture, rape, mutilation, and murder. This limits of free speech applies to those working in broadcasting, which is why the FCC regulates the industry and has set obscenity guidelines, which media practitioners must follow.
Lying, in Many Circumstances, is Not Considered Free Speech
Lying while you are under oath is called perjury, and it is considered a criminal offense. If they catch you lying to investigators, who is tasked by the government to investigate a crime, then this is also a form of criminal offense that will get you no constitutional protection.
You may swear at the officers, but what could land you in jail are the dishonest things you said along with your curses. Martha Stewart is the main example that people use when it comes to lying to federal investigators. They put her in prison for being untruthful about her stock trading during a federal investigation.
The Tricky Case of Oral Defamation
“Defamation of Character” is an umbrella term for any type of statement that someone makes to hurt another person’s good name and reputation. When it is written, the act is officially called libel. When it is uttered or spoken, it is labeled as slander. Defamation per se is not a crime, but it is a civil wrongdoing, also referred to as a tort. A person who feels defamed and wronged can still sue you for damages. So, if you utter curses at the police officer arresting you, can you be charged with defaming him?
In general, the police cannot arrest you for what you say. This includes swearing at them. However, they can slap you with some other charges, such as resisting arrest. If you shout F you, bullshit, and the like, then you can get away without any issues, not unless you have state laws against it.
If you scream something like you fat obese cow, they can do nothing because it is your opinion. However, if you scream something like you effing ugly nigger, then you can be charged with racial abuse.
The Defamation law attempts to balance two interests that or the opposite ends of a spectrum; on one side is people, who should not ruin others’ lives by disparaging their character and spreading rumors about them, versus the other side, where people should be able to speak openly without having to constantly second guess themselves that they would get sued over every error, insult, or disagreement done with anyone. The law acknowledges that individuals are vastly different, and therefore, there are varying beliefs and opinions that they should be free to express.
Threats, Fighting Words, and Inciting Violence are All Not Protected Speech
Ordinary insults, like screaming profanity at a police officer, are not prohibited. However, if your words incite people to rebel against this officer, then you are breaking the law. The concept of “fighting words” first appeared in Chaplinsky Versus New Hampshire in 1942. The Supreme Court upheld the law that prohibits one person from insulting or defaming another on a public street, only if this derisive language was said to promote violence and incite people to rebel.
The purpose of these statutes is to preserve peace in the public arena and to prevent street brawls. Let’s take in these two different examples:
- Officer Smith comes to the scene to respond to someone’s report that a shady character is selling cocaine in the corner. Officer Smith confronts a person named John, who matches the seller’s description. John feels offended and starts screaming and cursing at the officer. His tirade gathers a crowd. He then encourages everyone watching to join his protest against Officer Smith, citing that he is harassing him akin to the LA riots. In the scenario, Officer Smith arrests John for disorderly conduct because this ordinary citizen’s actions are likely to cause violence. (Case example: Chemalali v. D.C., 655 A.2d 1226 (D.C. 1995).
- Let’s analyze another similar situation. Officer Smith, who is patrolling the subway, sees John jumping the turnstile to evade paying. He stops John and issues him a ticket. John becomes aggressive and begins yelling and cursing at Officer Smith. Of course, a curious crowd of onlookers gathers to watch. John only continues to curse, so Officer Smith arrests him for disorderly conduct. However, the court reviews the documentation and finds the arrest illegal because no evidence suggests that John had any intention of inciting the crowd to violence. The crowd also did not become agitated at John’s words. He didn’t interact with anyone other than the police officer. (Case example: Shepherd v. D.C., 929 A.2d 417 (D.C. 2007).
Special Cases Depending on State Laws
Depending on where you live, state laws, local ordinances, and community standards support some limits on freedom of expression. Several states have laws and ordinances that are against the use of profanity. For example, in Virginia, it is deemed a misdemeanor to “curse or abuse” any person, “under circumstances reasonably calculated to provoke a breach of the peace.” Furthermore, within the state of Virginia, local municipalities like Rockville take it up a notch to ensure that no vulgar language is uttered at all. This means you profane words cannot leave your mouth within hearing distance of any other individual in any public place.
In the same token, some states utilize the charges called disorderly behavior or public disturbance of peace to limit offensive language. To illustrate, the statute of Texas pertaining to disorderly behavior centers on prohibiting using “abusive, indecent, profane, or vulgar language in a public place.” Thus, cursing the police in a public arena can get you slapped with a disorderly behavior or inappropriate conduct misdemeanor in Texas, is can land you in jail and ask you to pay a fine of five hundred dollars.
This is in total contrast to Washington State’s laws, which state that cursing, hurling profane words against the police is a form of speech that is protected by the First Amendment. Doing this is insufficient to warrant the being arrested and charged with the crime of obstructing law enforcement. In the State of Washington v. E.J.J., the case noted they cannot use “obstruction statutes to limit citizens’ right to express verbal criticism, even abusive criticism, at police officers.”
What to Do If You Have Been Arrested
As a law-abiding citizen, what must you do if the police arrest you for being too outspoken? As seen in the mentioned cases, there is a fine line between protected and unprotected speech and expression. The nitty-gritty of the laws also varies depending on where you live. If they arrest you because of a heated argument and confrontation with a police officer, you must call your lawyer right away.
Once they cuff you, remain quiet until your lawyer gets there because anything you say can and will be used against you. Make sure that you call a reputable and knowledgeable law firm, like the Quirk Law Group, with an expertise in criminal defense to ensure you are protected.
You may be tempted to antagonize police officers, but you must think twice. Just because you can curse at police officers, doesn’t mean you should because your speech can violate some other form of the law and they can slap you with a resisting arrest charge. An officer may also misrepresent your words and slap you with a technical violation to justify your arrest. For instance, an insulted officer can arrest you not for cursing at him but for being drunk in public.
Thus, it is also critical to be informed about the laws in your own state regarding profanity, disorderly conduct, and obstruction of justice. These are platforms that police officers can use against you to curtail your speech. Again, if you are in this stressful situation, don’t hesitate to get in touch with your attorney, who has the expertise on civil rights and criminal statutes. In fact, calling your Quirk Law Group attorney is the first step you must do.