Edgar Orea brought me this footage. He’s a street preacher who was arrested in Bluefield, West Virginia for the content of his protected First Amendment speech. Edgar and his wife moved to Bluefield in order to serve the people of nearby McDowell County, West Virginia, which is the poorest county in the entire nation. But from the very beginning, they were harassed by the Bluefield Police Department, as you’ll see in the video. The police objected to the content of their message. In this particular incident, they actually arrested Mr. Orea and took him to jail based on the content of his anti-abortion sign, which showed an aborted fetus.
There was a similar case litigated in Kentucky: World Wide Street Preachers’ v. City of Owensboro, 342 F.Supp.2d 634 (W.D. Ky. 2004). In that case, another street preacher was arrested in a public park for showing a large sign with a similar photograph of an aborted fetus. The police claimed that this was causing public alarm and was likely to cause a confrontation. So they cited the individual, but otherwise didn’t arrest him or interfere with his other activities. The Court held:
A function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea. Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 4, 69 S.Ct. 894, 93 L.Ed. 1131 (1949)….
In light of Supreme Court precedent, the Court cannot find that the Plaintiffs’ sign, no matter how gruesome or how objectionable it may be, constitutes “fighting words.” The Plaintiffs’ speech, whether one agrees with it or not, was certainly not of “slight social value.” Rather, their speech was a powerful, albeit graphic commentary on a societal debate that divides many Americans. Furthermore, their speech was not directed at any particular person. Their speech commented on a highly significant social issue and was calculated to challenge people, to unsettle them, and even to anger them, but not to insult them. Such social commentary is not only protected under Supreme Court precedent but also is highly valued in the marketplace of ideas in our free society.
Here, the Bluefield Police Department did much more than issue a citation, but rather placed Mr. Orea in handcuffs and carted him off for incarceration. Then they refused to return his signs, except for one. They charged him with two criminal misdemeanors: disorderly conduct and obstruction, two favorites of law enforcement officers for arresting people who have committed no crime. Fortunately, the charges were dismissed by the Court following a motion to dismiss based on the First Amendment.