Did you know that you have the right to curse at a police officer? Yes, this includes the “F-word.“ In August of this year, the Federal District Court upheld this type of speech as being constitutionally protected unless it is deemed likely to cause a riot.
This decision stemmed from a riot in a National Park in 1999 when approximately forty people started yelling profanity at National Park Service Rangers who were forceably arresting a teen-ager for bicycling under the influence. One particular individual named Nolan Poocha stepped forward from the group of forty and said, “F-- you” to the rangers. No arrest was made at the scene; however, the next day, the rangers found Mr. Poocha and charged him with disorderly conduct.
The circuit court judge seemed to enjoy the use of the F-word, for his legal opinion was filled with it. Judge Reinhardt, declared that there was nothing about saying “F– you” to the forest rangers that came anywhere close to inciting a riot. He further spoke about the “prized American privilege to speak one’s mind, although not always with perfect good taste, on all public institutions.”
Justice Reinhardt indicated that it was not unlawful for this speech to include “vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government officials.”
When asked for comment, an L.A.P.D. sergeant indicated that he knows that being cursed at is part of his job and he believes that big city police officers are perhaps more used to it than forest rangers and that he would not have made the arrest.
The key to this case was that although Mr. Poocha’s speech took place in front of an emotional crowd during a protest, the court did not find these to be what are known as “fighting words.” One cannot incite through the use of fighting words: if that were the case here, then a crime would have been committed.
At the risk of stating the obvious, I don’t think that what Mr. Poocha did was a particularly good idea; however, U.S. Supreme Court decisions for the last fifty years, along with this Circuit Court decision make this type of speech lawful as well it should be.