Ohio court: Girl’s curses at cops were fighting words

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A juvenile who cursed out several police officers committed the crime of disorderly conduct, an Ohio appeals court has ruled. The appeals court said the girl’s intemperate language constituted unprotected fighting words rather than protected speech under the First Amendment.

In September 2010, police officers were called to investigate a fight among middle-school students as they were walking home from school. When the officers arrived, one of them noticed a juvenile girl, known in court papers as T.W., making an obscene gesture.

The officer approached T.W. and she refused to cooperate or answer questions. T.W. walked away from the officer. The officer arrested T.W., who then unleashed a torrent of profanity at several officers. She also allegedly threatened the officers.

In July 2011, delinquency proceedings were brought against T.W. in part for her conduct during the incident. In January 2012, a juvenile court judge from Allen County, Ohio, found T.W. delinquent because she committed disorderly conduct. The judge sentenced her to 90 days’ monitored time and required her to perform community service.

T.W. appealed to the Ohio Court of Appeals, contending that the officers violated her Fourth Amendment right to be free from unlawful arrests. She contended she should not have been arrested for engaging in protected speech. However, the state countered that she had uttered unprotected fighting words.

In 1942, the U.S. Supreme Court in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire  defined fighting words as those “which by their utterance inflict injury or incite an immediate breach of the peace.” Some courts have determined that profane language directed at police officers does not constitute fighting words because officers are held to a higher standard in that they are trained not to overreact.

In In the Matter of T.W.,  the Court of Appeals of Ohio, 3rd Appellate District, sided with the state in its Dec. 17 opinion.

The appeals court determined that the sheer level of profanity and threats directed at the officers rose to the level of fighting words. The court wrote that “there is competent, credible evidence showing that a reasonable person would be incited to breach the peace in response to T.W.’s statements, and a rational trier of fact could have determined T.W. was guilty of persistent disorderly conduct.”

The decision indicates that juveniles may have a more difficult time in fighting-words cases than do adults.

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