The First Amendment Center commented this week on an Ohio Appeals Court ruling that an adolescent girl was guilty of disorderly conduct. The girl was arrested for the words she spoke to police offers, following a fight among middle school students. With the ruling, the court denied the girl’s claims that her arrest violated her First Amendment rights to free speech, asserting instead that her speech constituted unprotected fighting words.
Fighting words are “well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech the prevention and punishment of [which] … have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem,” a definition established in the 1942 Supreme Court Case Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire. They are words uttered to incite hatred or violence from the receiver. As the First Amendment Center notes, some courts have held that such language doesn’t hold up as fighting words when it is directed at police officers, since they have special training in conflict mediation.
According to the decision, the defendant was giving the cops and other students the middle finger, when an officer approached her and put his hand on her shoulder. Her response of “get the fuck off of me” then led to a string of other profanities. When she was arrested and put in the car to be transported, she then allegedly threatened the arresting officers. At this point, however, she was already handcuffed and in the back seat of a police vehicle.
One wonders why police officers wouldn’t show more, rather than less, restraint in the face of insults and harassment from a minor. It also inspires questions as to whether First Amendment protections are more easily trampled where minors are concerned.