First amendment protections of free speech don’t just protect polite speech.
If you need a reminder of this, look no further than the case of a Wisconsin man who was just awarded $35,000 after he was arrested and convicted of a handful of crimes for using a few four-letter words to describe how he felt about his local police department.
The story goes like this:
According to court documents, Thomas Smith took issue with a police investigation and when the department posted about it on Facebook, he let loose.
From Courthouse News:
The complaint filed against the village of Arena and Officer Nicholas Stroik involves the community’s reactions to the July 19, 2012, arrests of “several African-Americans suspected of burglary.”
Police had “canvassed Arena neighborhoods … [and] the suspects were arrested later that night after a local resident apprehended them at gunpoint,” according to the complaint.
Thomas Smith, who was living in Arena at the time, says Stroik set the wheels in motion with July 20 post to the police department’s Facebook page, thanking the community for their assistance in the investigation.
Smith and several others commented on a post by the department thanking citizens for their help in apprehending the suspects, who were African American males…
Smith allegedly posted two comments: “Fuck the fucking cops they ant shit but fucking racist basturds an fucking all of y’all who is racist” and “Fuck them nigers bitchs wat you got on us not a dam thing so fuck off dicks.” [Spelling in original.]
The officer deleted his comments, but that wasn’t enough. The department called Smith and asked him if he made the comments. He copped to it saying “I don’t regret it and I mean it.”
The same day, Smith was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, unlawful use of a computerized communication system, and unlawful use of a telephone. A jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to a year of probation and 25 hours of community service – but an appeals court overturned his conviction. He sued in November of 2014.
Now, Smith’s lawyer has just announced the settlement, which amounts to $35,000.
“I filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on Smith’s behalf in November 2014. Attorney Jeff Scott Olson joined the team in February 2015. While the defendants initially claimed that they were not liable because the Facebook page was not “an officially sanctioned Facebook page,” they abandoned that claim in subsequent pleadings. The defendants also admitted that Smith was the first person they had arrested under the identified statutes for posting profane comments on the internet,” writes Tom Aquino.
“We have always believed that the defendants’ liability was clear. Federal and state courts have routinely held that the right to free speech is not limited to polite speech alone. In our country, we are entitled to criticize our government with passion. The use of some four-letter words in the course of doing so is never a crime. We hope that the Arena Police Department, and other police departments across the state, have now learned this lesson.”
If you want to yell “fuck the police” in the comments section of a police department’s Facebook page, you can. It may not be the smartest thing in the world – and it could lead to a pretty massive headache. But cases like this at least confirm your constitutional right to do so.