#$&# Yeah, Free Speech
Good news! The First Amendment is still in effect!
While the First Amendment has a lot of lovely provisions, one of the most celebrated is the right to “free speech.” Because we’re talking about the constitution, this amendment applies to the government (instead of, say, a private message board). Basically free speech means the government can’t fine someone or lock them up simply because it doesn’t like the words a speaker uses. While free speech isn’t unlimited, as I’ve discussed before, the government has a very high burden it must overcome before it can criminalize speech. It is very, very established law that permissible speech includes speech that is critical of the government.
Unfortunately the town of Liberty, NY didn’t get the memo. William Barbazo received a traffic ticket while driving through there. Not happy with the ticket, he added some colorful language and sent it in with a payment. The court rejected his payment, forced him to come to court in person, then had him handcuffed and charged with…something. Even Liberty knew they couldn’t outlaw swearing, so they said his language was threatening…somehow. Clearly, whatever he was charged with was a response to someone’s petticoats getting in a bunch.
Mr. Barbazoa sued the town in federal court for violating his First Amendment rights. The federal judge agreed and the town will be facing a trial to determine appropriate damages for the false arrest.
Now what’s the takeaway from this? It’s (still) legal to tell a city or its representatives to perform an anatomical impossibility. But like many things in life, just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should. Many people express themselves to city officials or police officers and it’s rarely persuasive. Instead the government official is even less likely to cut a citizen a break, or help them at all. You don’t have to say anything at all, but if you do, it’s still better to be polite.
Afterwards if you want to complain? I suggest Yelp.