Kan. appeals court: Man’s curses at ex-wife were fighting words

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Kansas man’s curses at his ex-wife weren’t just profane, they were fighting words. A state appeals court has found that Kenneth Meadors’ verbal tirade consisted of unprotected fighting words rather than protected speech.

Meadors cursed at ex-wife Marsha Davis as she attempted to drop their kids off for visitation. Bobbi Jo Turner, who was with Davis in the car at the time, testified she didn’t feel safe and urged Davis to drive away with the children to a nearby post office. Davis called the police and later met an officer in town.

The officer went to Meadors’ house to speak with. After reviewing the custody papers, the officer told Davis the children should be left at Meadors’ home. Meadors then began cursing at Davis again. The officer warned Meadors to desist from further cursing. Meadors then cursed the officer and told him to get off his property. Davis dropped the children off and left. The officer then arrested Meadors for disorderly conduct.

After a bench trial in Clay County, Meadors was convicted of disorderly conduct. On appeal, he contended that his tirade did not contain any threats and that his speech was protected by the First Amendment.

The Kansas Court of Appeals disagreed and affirmed his conviction in its Jan. 27 opinion in State v. Meadors. Kansas law defines disorderly conduct in part as:

Disorderly conduct is, with knowledge or probable cause to believe that such acts will alarm, anger or disturb others or provoke an assault or other breach of the peace…

(c) Using offensive, obscene, or abusive language or engaging in noisy conduct tending reasonably to arouse alarm, anger or resentment in others.

The Kansas Supreme Court has determined that this part of the law is constitutional only to the extent that the speech constitutes fighting words — defined by the U.S. Supreme Court in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942)  as words “which by their utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.”

Meadors contended that his conviction could not stand because he did not utter fighting words. He said that the state could not convict him unless it could prove that his words contained threats and that his ex-wife was alarmed, angered or disturbed.

The Kansas appeals court disagreed, writing that “none of the cases actually require a threat in order to constitute fighting words.” According to the court, “a threat is merely another factor to be considered by the courts when determining whether the words spoken were fighting words.” Furthermore, the court noted that Davis testified that Meadors’ outbursts were traumatic for her and her children.

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