State appeals court reverses man’s conviction for offensive speech

Monday, October 11, 1999

A Minnesota appeals court has overturned a man's disorderly conduct conviction, saying his offensive speech was protected by the First Amendment.

John Brown Bridges of Watonwan County was convicted in 1998 for disorderly conduct after he made insulting remarks about the military as he passed a National Guardsman.

On appeal, Bridges argued that the conviction violated his First Amendment free-speech rights. The state appeals court in State v. Bridges agreed, finding that an individual may be convicted of disorderly conduct for speech only if the speech constitutes “fighting words.”

“Fighting words” has been defined by the U.S. Supreme Court as those words that tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace or provoke the recipient to violence.

“The disorderly conduct statute may not be used to combat rudeness or social engineering,” the appeals court wrote in its Oct. 5 opinion. “Without a doubt, Bridge's statements were vulgar, offensive, and insulting. However, in order for these statements to be fighting words, they must tend to incite an immediate breach of peace or retaliatory violence by the recipient of the speech.”

The appeals court pointed out that the classic example of fighting words is a face-to-face personal insult. In the Bridges case, however, the statements were made about the military in general and were made while Bridges and his child were walking away from the guardsman. The guardsman even testified in court that Bridges was “just babbling senselessly on stupid tangents. … I don't exactly know what he said.”

The appeals court concluded: “Under these circumstances, we cannot conclude that Bridge's remarks, while vulgar and offensive, rise to the level of 'fighting words' tending to provoke an immediate violent reaction or breach of the peace. Construing the disorderly conduct statute narrowly, as we must, Bridge's remarks are an insufficient basis for conviction.”

“The case stands for basic proposition that you can't be convicted because you say something offensive,” Robert Docherty, Bridges' attorney, said. “The appeals court applied long-standing Minnesota law that you can't be convicted for disorderly conduct unless the speech constitutes fighting words.”

The county attorney who handled the case for the prosecution was in court and unavailable for comment.