Cop-cursing defendant loses free-speech argument before Ohio appeals court

Friday, December 3, 1999

An Ohio appeals court has rejected the First Amendment defense of a man who
was convicted of cursing at police officers.

Ronald D. Johnson cursed at two Hamilton police officers in December 1998
after they impounded his vehicle because the car had expired tags. The car was
parked in front of his house at the time.

When the officers informed Johnson they were impounding the car, he called
one of them a “f—— jackass” and told them “I’m not signing s—.”

Last January, Johnson was tried before a municipal court judge on charges of
violating a city ordinance that makes it an offense to “verbally abuse or make
derogatory remarks” to a police officer.

On appeal, Johnson argued that the ordinance was unconstitutional because it
infringed on protected speech.

In City of Hamilton v. Johnson, the Ohio appeals court said that the
ordinance “on its face sweeps too broadly.” However, the court noted that the
statute was constitutional because it could be interpreted to apply only to
fighting words.

In 1942, the U.S. Supreme Court in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire defined
fighting words as those words which are likely by their very utterance to
inflict injury, or which tend to incite the average person to immediate
violence. The high court said that fighting words receive no First Amendment

Having interpreted the statute to apply only to fighting words, the Ohio
appeals court then focused on whether Johnson’s curse words constituted fighting

“Epithets and disparaging remarks that are descriptive of a particular person
and directed to that person are often fighting words,” the court wrote in its
Nov. 29 opinion. “In cases where a police officer is the offended party, profane
words specifically and intentionally directed to a particular officer usually
constitute fighting words, while an inappropriate and vulgar commentary about
the situation, without more, is not punishable.”

The court determined that Johnson’s profane language, which was specifically
directed to the officers, rose to the level of fighting words.

Neither Johnson, who represented himself, nor the city attorney could be
reached for comment.


  • State appeals court won’t allow free-speech plea for cop-cursing defendant 9.17.99
  • Pennsylvania high court dismisses charges against woman who cussed at cop 5.6.99