Curses aimed at cops not ‘fighting words,’ rules state appeals court

Friday, November 3, 2000

A Lynchburg, Va., man who cursed at several police officers shouldn’t
have been convicted for breach of the peace because his speech didn’t amount to
fighting words, a state appeals court has ruled.

At 1 a.m. on June 24, 1999, Brent David Marttila was confronted by
three police officers over a vehicle registration problem. Marttila told the
officers that he did not own the car in question.

An hour later, the officers saw Marttila exit the same vehicle. They
then discovered that Marttila had lied to them about ownership of the car and
that he had lived in the state for six months without obtaining a state
driver’s license or registration.

As the three officers approached Marttila, he cursed the officers,
calling them “f—— pigs,” “f—— jokes” and telling them that they “should
be at a f—— doughnut shop.”

The officers cited Marttila with violating a city breach-of-the-peace
ordinance, which prohibits the “use of any violent abusive language” to another
person that is “calculated to provide a breach of the peace.”

Later that year, a state trial judge convicted Marttila, finding that
“these were fighting words under the circumstances.”

In 1942, the U.S. Supreme Court in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire defined fighting words
as 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 protection.

The Virginia Supreme Court had ruled that a state law similar to the
Lynchburg ordinance was constitutional because it only applied to insults that
are likely to “precipitate an immediate, forceful and violent reaction by a
reasonable person.”

Marttila appealed his conviction to the state appeals court. Last
week, the state appeals court reversed the conviction in
Marttila v. City of Lynchburg.

The appeals court quoted the 1987 Supreme Court decision
City of Houston v. Hill for the
proposition that “the First Amendment protects a significant amount of verbal
criticism and challenge directed at police officers.”

Marttila made no threatening gestures and only “expressed contempt for
the officers in a general sense,” the court ruled.

The appeals court concluded: “The evidence was insufficient as a
matter of law to prove appellant’s (Marttila’s) statements had a direct
tendency to provoke an immediate breach of the peace by reasonably trained
police officers in the position of the officers to whom the remarks were

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