Pennsylvania high court dismisses charges against woman who cussed at cop

Thursday, May 6, 1999

A woman who directed profanity at a police officer cannot be convicted of disorderly conduct, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania recently ruled.

Kelly Jo Hock was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest after saying “F— you, a——” to a police officer who threatened to cite her for driving on a suspended license. The officer, who knew Hock had a suspended license, approached her as she sat in her car in the parking lot of her apartment.

When the officer told Hock he would issue her a citation for driving without a valid license, she walked away, uttering the above remark. The officer then chased Hock up to her apartment and arrested her.

Hock argued in court that her resisting-arrest charge was unlawful because her offensive language could not support a charge of disorderly conduct. At a hearing, the trial court dismissed all criminal charges in October 1995, finding that her single profane remark did not create public harm sufficient to warrant a violation of the disorderly conduct law.

On appeal, the Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed in July 1997, finding that Hock's comments constituted fighting words — a category of speech which receives no First Amendment protection.

(In its 1942 decision Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire the U.S. Supreme Court first ruled that fighting words are not protected by the First Amendment. The court defined them as words “which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.”)

On May 3, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania reversed the superior court in Commonwealth v. Hock, finding that the defendant's “single profane remark” did not constitute fighting words. The court ruled that a jury could not reasonably determine her remarks “risked an immediate breach of the peace.”

“The police must expect that, as part of their jobs, they will be exposed to daily contact with distraught individuals in emotionally charged situations,” wrote the court. “Moreover, the offense of disorderly conduct is not intended as a catchall for every act which annoys or disturbs people; it is not to be used as a dragnet for all the irritations which breed in the ferment of a community.”

David Wingert, senior deputy district attorney for Lebanon County, said: “The court placed great emphasis on Ms. Hock's tone of voice when she spoke to the police officer. There is still a murkiness where the First Amendment begins and ends with the fighting words exception.

“I don't expect an appeal will be filed,” Wingert said.

A call placed to Hock's attorney was not returned.