The 1st Amendment: When Talking is Criminal

The 1st Amendment: When Talking is Criminal

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In the last few weeks we’ve seen the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, a “free speech” rally in Boston, and similar rallies in San Francisco and Berkeley today. That’s got talking heads throwing around the phrases “First Amendment” and “free speech.”

This isn’t a political opinion piece; you can find those elsewhere. Instead, I want to talk about the limit of the 1st Amendment: when can you be thrown in jail and charged with a crime for nothing more than the words that come out of your mouth.

FREE SPEECH DOESN’T DISCRIMINATE

            The 1st Amendment gives people in America the right to say whatever is on their mind. You can shout from a mountaintop that you love puppies, flowers, and ice cream. That’s fine. You can stand on that same mountaintop in KKK robes and shout that all immigrants should be deported and that all people of color jailed. The law says both are okay.

Morally different, legally equivalent.

WHEN TALKING IS ILLEGAL

The 1st Amendment doesn’t protect all speech. There are situations where you can go to jail just for words spilling out of your mouth. In Florida, if the police arrest you just for talking, the crime you’re most likely to be charged with is Breach of Peace, aka Disorderly Conduct.[1] That law makes it illegal to “corrupt the public morals,” “outrage the sense of public decency,” or “affect the peace and quiet of persons.”

After decades of police arresting people for disorderly conduct, Florida courts have made it real hard to convict people of it based on words alone. Here’s a few ways someone can be convicted of disorderly conduct just for the hot air coming out of their mouth:

  1. Shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

This is basic, don’t be a jerk … unless there’s actually a fire. Then you should definitely shout fire, call 911, and get away from the fire.

  1. Inciting a crowd to engage in an immediate breach of peace.

Basically, if you’re calling for a crowd to breach the peace or do violence, and you’re such a persuasive speaker that the crowd responds, that’ll be a breach of the peace.[2] That brings to mind scenes from recent campaign rallies.

  1. Using “Fighting Words”

Fighting words are things you say to somebody that would cause the average person to fight.[3] They have to be egregiously terrible words too because saying, “fuck you, pussy cracker”[4] to a police officer and calling a cop a “motherfucker”[5] aren’t considered fighting words.

            That means you can tell your favorite “your mama” joke without fear of getting arrested.

THE LAW OF THE STREET

Everything that I’ve written about so far is about the law as it’s written by the Florida Congress and interpreted by the Florida Courts. You should take notice that neither your Congresswoman nor Appellate Judges are likely to be hanging around when someone’s insulting a police officer. On the street, police officers have the power. So if you decide to start insulting police officers, remember that they can arrest you and let the lawyers sort it out.[6]

Being polite and respectful to police is in your own self-interest. Save your favorite “your mama” joke for your friends.

If you liked this article, have any comments, or have any questions, let us know in the comments. Also, if there are any topics that you want us to cover in a blog post, let us know in the comments, on Twitter, or by email.

[1] Florida Statute § 877.03

[2] That brings to mind scenes from certain recent campaign rallies.

[3] Clanton v. State, 357 So. 2d 455 (2d DCA 1978)

[4] C.P. v. State, 644 So.2d 600 (2nd DCA 1994)

[5] C.L.B. v. State, 689 So.2d 1171 (2nd DCA 1997)

[6] That’s what I get paid to do.

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About Cam Cornish

I'm a criminal defense lawyer, a personal injury plaintiff attorney, and a trial lawyer. Born in Miami, FL. I was raised as the only gringo in the Cuban family my Mom married into. In my off time I kiteboard, play guitar, sing (badly), travel, and make travel videos.

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