Doxxed by a Senator: Free Speech Retaliation by Public Officials

I want to expand on the legal issues presented in yesterday’s video a little more. Yesterday I posted a video on the issue of warning fellow motorists about a speed trap via flashing the lights on your car. If that is protected speech, and as a result of that protected speech, you get pulled over, harassed, arrested, or so on, at that point you may have not just a Fourth Amendment violation, but also a First Amendment violation. More specifically, the cause of action in federal court is called First Amendment Retaliation. It’s a violation of your First Amendment rights to suffer retaliation as a consequence of exercising your rights. This area of the law can be extremely murky. But it can also be straightforward. Like everything else in federal constitutional law, it’s highly fact-dependent.

This can be illustrated by a case I litigated, which pre-dated my Youtube channel, so you won’t find it there – at least before now. Imagine that a private citizen, riding in his work delivery truck, through the West Virginia countryside, sees a vehicle come barreling around him on a stretch of road with a double yellow line, going into a curve. This is filmed by the citizen with his cell phone. He recognizes the vehicle as that of his state senator. He then posts the video to social media, showing and denouncing the senator’s actions to his social media friends. But the senator has his own social media following, which is exponentially larger. In response to the citizen’s video, that senator with a large social media following goes on a rant against the citizen, calling him names, and also then identifying his place of employment – doxxing him, essentially. But he didn’t stop there.

Large numbers of § 1983 complaints allege free speech retaliation claims. These claims frequently give rise to difficult legal issues and sharply contested factual issues. The majority of these claims are asserted by present and former public employees. First Amendment retaliation claims are also asserted by government contractors, individuals subject to criminal prosecution, prisoners, and landowners, among others.

As a general matter, public officials may not respond to “constitutionally protected activity with conduct or speech that would chill or adversely affect [t]his protected activity.” Balt. Sun Co. v. Ehrlich , 437 F.3d 410, 416 (4th Cir. 2006). That is so “even if the act, when taken for different reasons, would have been proper.” ACLU of Md., Inc. v. Wicomico Cty ., 999 F.2d 780, 785 (4th Cir. 1993).

To succeed on a First Amendment retaliation claim, a plaintiff must show: “(1) [the] speech was protected, (2) the alleged retaliatory action adversely affected [the] protected speech, and (3) a causal relationship [existed] between the protected speech and the retaliation.” Raub v. Campbell , 785 F.3d 876, 885 (4th Cir. 2015).

However, a plaintiff must allege the violation of a federal right by a person acting under color of state law. Public officials can theoretically act both under color of law, as well as a private actor not under color of law. The defendant acts under color of state law if he is “a state actor or ha[s] a sufficiently close relationship with state actors such that . . . [he] is engaged in the state’s actions.” Cox v. Duke Energy Inc., 876 F.3d 625, 632 (4th Cir. 2017). Put simply, the defendant acts under color of state law when he “exercise[s] power possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because [he] is clothed with the authority of state law.” Davison v. Randall, 912 F.3d 666, 679 (4th Cir. 2019) (internal quotation marks omitted). 

“[T]here is no specific formula for defining state action under this standard.” Rather, Courts evaluate “the totality of the circumstances.” Holly v. Scott, 434 F.3d 287, 292 (4th Cir. 2006). “If a defendant’s purportedly private actions are linked to events which rose out of his official status, the nexus between the two can play a role in establishing that he acted under color of state law.” In addition, “[w]here the sole intention of a public official is to suppress speech critical of his conduct of official duties or fitness for public office, his actions are more fairly attributable to the state.” 

In my case, this was the big issue. The senator’s lawyers filed a motion to dismiss. The federal court ended up denying that motion to dismiss, ordering the case to proceed. The Court pointed out that the state senator posted his response video on his official campaign Facebook page that he was using to both share information with his constituents, as well as to campaign for Congress. Thus the social media account generating the alleged retaliation was closely connected to official activities. 

Using that official account and social media following, the Court concluded that an inference was supported that the state senator was using his official position to pressure my client’s employer to fire him. Moreover, the Court found a causal connection between the response video, as well as the phone call to the employer, and my client being fired. He ordered the case to proceed and a subsequent settlement ensued.

Is There a Right to Flash Lights to Warn Motorists of a Speed Trap? – Can They Stop You?

Is there a constitutionally protected right to flash your lights at oncoming traffic, in order to warn them of an approaching speed trap? There’s remarkably few rulings out there on this issue, and a quick search reveals very little guidance from the judiciary and the legal community. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a common occurrence. I hear about it from time-to-time and there’s a few instances out there if it being captured on video. Perhaps my favorite is an old video from the guy they called the Godfather of First Amendment auditors, Jeff Grey.

This occurred in Florida, near Jacksonville, on I-10, and involves a classic Florida speed trap, full of unnecessary government employees who have nothing else better to do than to harass people and flex their egos and authority. Jeff sets the trap with the bait. And the cops can’t resist it. 

Here’s the original video:

What we have here is an acknowledgment that Jeff was subjected to a traffic stop as a sole result of his flashing his lights. There’s no allegation of speeding, seat belt, or other pretext for the stop. Remember: every traffic stop is already an investigative detention, by definition, and therefore reasonable suspicion must be present to justify the invasion of Fourth Amendment protections. Now, reasonable suspicion is usually pretty easy for even the dumbest of police officers to articulate, which encourages them to lie. They just have to say they saw you violate some traffic law. Here, had they known ahead of time who they were dealing with, they probably would have made something else up. But the first thing that popped out was feigned concern about protecting or helping Jeff. They know that’s a lie. Jeff knows that’s a lie. They know that Jeff knows that’s a lie.

If this were true, there would be no Fourth Amendment justification to continue to detain Jeff. However, the footage clearly shows that they indeed continue to detain him. What likely happens is that the officers now go back to their police cruisers, and discuss the situation. Now they’re aware that Jeff was filming them. For police officers who were already willing to lie about the reason they pulled Jeff over, this could be a problem. As you’ll see, their strategy is to stop the recording. But Jeff refuses, calling their bluff.

Even now in 2022, there’s still no clear federal law on the issue on whether there’s a federally protected First Amended right to warn oncoming traffic about a speed trap. But there’s a wealth of clearly established law on the right not to be detained by the police in the absence of reasonable suspicion. If the officers in Jeff’s video had been honest about the reason they were pulling Jeff over, and if they were able to point to a Florida statute he was violating, they may have been justified in their actions, or at the very least entitled to qualified immunity. However, they basically admitted that they pulled him over in retaliation for warning other motorists, without bothering even to lie about a pretextual reason for doing so, thereafter repeatedly trying to intimidate him into turning off his camera.

There are no Supreme Court cases on this. There are no federal appellate cases, to my knowledge. There are only a couple of U.S. District Court opinions, and a couple of state circuit court opinions. There was a 2019 memorandum opinion from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin holding that a policy and practice of stopping, detaining, and citing drivers who flash their headlights to warn oncoming drivers of a speed trap violates his right to free speech under the First Amendment. This was Obriecht v. Splinter.

The First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” It protects conduct, symbols, and non-verbal communication that express or convey a particularized message reasonably understood by viewers. Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 404-06 (1989). Flashing headlights could easily be placed into the category of expressive conduct. In the Obriecht v. Splinter case, this point was conceded by the state. However, even expressive conduct may be regulate by the government. For example, speech that incites or produces “imminent lawless action,” Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444, 447 (1969), or is integral to criminal conduct, such as fighting words, threats, and solicitations, United States v. White, 610 F.3d 956, 960 (7th Cir. 2010), is not protected by the First Amendment. 

Another similar case from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri held in 2014 that this conduct was entitled to protection under the First Amendment. (Elli v. City of Ellisville, Mo). At least two state circuit courts have found that drivers have a constitutional right to flash their headlights. (State of Oregon v. Hill (2014); State v. Walker (Tenn. 2003)).

The problem with the lack of precedent on this issue leads to a big problem for potential plaintiffs: qualified immunity. The standard for qualified immunity requires establishing that the police officer violated clearly established law. Where there is almost no established case law, that’s going to be a tough task. 

However, as we saw from Jeff’s video, if police are going to pull people over for flashing their lights at other motorists, they need to be honest about what they’re doing, and identify a state or local statute they allege is violated by the relevant conduct. Then, the victim of that stop can mount a First Amendment challenge. This is how the law will become clearly established. At the same time, if they’re not being honest, only video footage is going to protect the motorist from pre-textual lies, which if documented, will establish liability for a Fourth Amendment violation, with no good argument for qualified immunity. 

Kentucky Officers Denied Qualified Immunity and Headed to Trial

Big update in Chris Wiest’s case in Kentucky, where several Kentucky police officers are being held accountable for their misconduct. Tonight he joined me for a live video, and we discussed developments in the case, at length. This is the case where the officers denied (under oath) striking the guy they were arresting, later finding out that video footage showed otherwise. This led to Officer Thomas Czartorski later being charged with perjury.

Prior video:

Update video with the footage:

Here’s the recent court order in the case, discussed in the videos:

Police Harass Innocent Citizens on Their Porch – Lawsuit Filed Today

What you’re about to see here is outrageous body cam footage that has never before been seen by anyone, other than law enforcement. It shows what happened to my clients, Jason Tartt, the property owner and landlord, as well as Donnie and Ventriss Hairston, his innocent and mistreated tenants, on August 7, 2020, when they were subjected to civil rights violations by two deputies with the McDowell County Sheriff’s Office, Dalton Martin and Jordan Horn. 

Today we filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, which is posted below. But you can watch the footage for yourself. Before the body cams were turned on, what you need to know is that there was a complaint received that an abandoned church, in an overgrown parcel of land not owned by any of these individuals, apparently had four marijuana plants growing there, among the thick brush. Crime of the century, right? The perpetrators must be one of the elderly African American residents nearby, of course. Instead of treating them as human beings, let’s accuse them first thing, then mistreat, harass, and retaliate against, them if they dare to get uppity, or not know their place. 

Donnie and Ventriss Hairston were sitting on the front porch of their rural home, when two deputies approached and began to harass and intimidate them. Their landlord, who lives next door, joined them shortly afterwards and began to ask questions. When they asserted their opinions and rights, retaliation ensued. The landlord, Jason Tartt, was seized and arrested. The Hairstons were shoved into their home against their will. This is never before seen footage, outside of law enforcement of course. Take a look and form your own opinion about what happened.

Here’s the footage:

Here’s the lawsuit:

Stay tuned for updates….

Fifth Circuit Gives Qualified Immunity to City Officials After Free Speech Retaliation Arrest of Councilwoman

On July 29, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit released a published opinion in the case of Sylvia Gonzalez v. Edward Trevino, Mayor of Castle Hills that now appears to be headed to the U.S. Supreme Court. This is an important First Amendment Retaliation case where qualified immunity is the key issue. Qualified immunity is the most important issue in the fight for the civil rights of the American people. It must be defeated, which is why you need to learn about cases like this, which the media will never tell you about.

Here’s the opinion:

The case is being litigated by the Institute for Justice. They filed suit for the plaintiff, Sylvia Gonzalez, a retired resident of Castle Hills, Texas, who decided to run for city council, and became the first Hispanic councilwoman in Castle Hills history. I spoke with the Institute of Justice attorneys litigating this case on the same day the opinion was released, and they seemed very optimistic about the future of this case at the Supreme Court. 

At Ms. Gonzalez’s first council meeting, she accidentally took home with her petition which had been debated at the meeting. It was laying in her stack of paperwork. It was later discovered that the petition was in her possession, which as it turns out, was technically a misdemeanor crime. The petition sought to remove the city manager. This town has fewer than 5,000 residents. During her campaign, Gonzalez learned that many residents were unhappy with the performance of the city manager. As her first act in office, she submitted this petition to the council. It was entirely unintentional that she ended up taking the petition home with her. She was supporting this petition and had no reason to suppress it or hide it. It was purely unintentional, and it was her first meeting as a councilwoman. 

Well, the city leadership was unhappy with Sylvia Gonzalez. After the mistake was discovered, the mayor, Edward Trevino, requested that a Sergeant in the Castle Hills Police Department file a criminal complaint alleging that Gonzalez took the petition without consent. The first officer to investigate, a Sergeant, determined that no crime had been committed. Well, that was unacceptable to the mayor and the chief, so they turned to a so-called “special detective.” The detective decided that Sylvia committed a violation of Texas Penal Code §§ 37.10(a)(3) and (c)(1), which provide that “[a] person commits an offense if he . . . intentionally destroys, conceals, removes, or otherwise impairs the verity, legibility, or availability of a governmental record.” 

Special Detective Alex Wright obtained a warrant, and instead of using the typical procedure of obtaining a summons, rather than a warrant, for a nonviolent crime, as well as going through the district attorney’s office, the detective instead obtained a warrant and hand-delivered it to the magistrate himself. The use of this process prevented Sylvia from using the satellite booking function of the Bexar County Jail system, making her unable to avoid spending time in jail when arrested. 

There is clear evidence here that this was done with a retaliatory motive, in response to Sylvia Gonzalez’s support of the petition to remove the city manager and disturb their swamp status quo. Sylvia’s arrest enabled the city leadership to remove her from office, as well as to intimidate, punish, and silence her. There was plenty evidence of this. In fact, Sylvia was charged under a statute that has never before or since been used to arrest someone in her position. A “review of the misdemeanor and felony data from Bexar County over the past decade makes it clear that the misdemeanor tampering statute has never been used in Bexar County to criminally charge someone for trying to steal a nonbinding or expressive document.” Indeed, most indictments under the statute involved fake government IDs, such as driver’s licenses, social security numbers, and green cards. 

But here was the big problem: technically there was probable cause to charge her under the statute that was charged. So the question is, can law enforcement arrest and prosecute Sylvia in retaliation for her protected free speech, so long as probable cause exists to do so? In other words, this is like a mayor ordering the arrest of a political opponent for some minor crime like jaywalking, where technically the crime was committed, but where there never would have been any prosecution at all, but for retaliation against free speech. This is the dispute, and there is a split in the federal circuits. 

In the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court case of Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, 138 S. Ct. 1945, 1954 (2018), the Court held that a municipality could be liable under a Monell Claim where its leadership decides to selectively prosecute a particular person in retaliation for their speech. The federal circuits have differed on how broadly to interpret this holding. The Fifth Circuit, in last week’s opinion, has chosen a narrow interpretation. 

The jaywalking example is the ideal example, which was discussed in the opinion:

“If an individual who has been vocally complaining about police conduct is arrested for jaywalking,” the claim should not be dismissed despite the existence of probable cause because “[i]n such a case, . . . probable cause does little to prove or disprove the causal connection between animus and injury.” 

 The Court “conclude[d] that the no-probable-cause requirement should not apply when a plaintiff presents objective evidence that he was arrested when otherwise similarly situated individuals not engaged in the same sort of protected speech had not been.” 

Basically, their conclusion was that since no prior council-person had been prosecuted by the city for taking a petition home with them, then there was no evidence to support a theory of retaliatory selective prosecution. This is of course, absurd. This is like saying that law enforcement may engage in retaliatory prosecutions, so long as they choose a creative statute that has never been used before against the same type of defendant. 

The fact is, that Sylvia Gonzalez engaged in highly protected First Amendment conduct, and that as a result of that conduct, a conspiracy of government officials took a material adverse action against her for purposes of retaliation. This is already prohibited under federal law. As the dissenting federal judge noted in his dissent, the police officers and city leadership have been on notice of a string of legal authority, dating all the way back to 1689, that it’s unconstitutional to jail people in response to their petitioning the government.

Hopefully the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn this. The Institute of Justice is doing some great work, not just in this case, but in many different cases across the country. They are likely even jumping into one of my cases, so stay tuned for that. Check out the youtube video the Institute did on the Gonzalez case, back when they first started. There’s a donation link. They need donations now, more than ever. Please donate, if you want to help fund the fight against qualified immunity and government corruption. Here’s the Institute’s video on the case, with donation link:

Here’s the district court order, which originally denied qualified immunity, and which the defendants appealed to the Fifth Circuit:

And here’s the IJ’s response brief to the motion asserting qualified immunity to the district court, which is fantastic:

Greenbrier County First Amendment Audit Video

My email inbox blew up this weekend after a nationally-known First Amendment auditor on Youtube, Long Island Audit, posted a video of his interaction at a courthouse that is local to me, in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. Here’s the video:

People have been asking for my take on this video. Given the fact that I have an office a stone’s throw away from where this was filmed, I’ve been in that courthouse many times. In fact, I was first sworn in to practice in West Virginia circuit courts in that very courthouse.

As you see in the video, here are the relevant facts. The auditor enters the courthouse. You do have to go through security to get in. You don’t get ID’d, but you go through a metal detector, and mind you, they’re filming you as you walk in as well. He goes into the county clerk’s records room, which is where they keep the property deeds, surveys, etc., and was asked to leave. A courthouse security officer then approaches and says he’s not allowed to film there. Then he makes his way eventually to the county commission room, where he speaks with the actual elected sheriff and an attorney. He explains what he’s doing, but declines to give his full name. At that point he’s asked to leave. On the way down the stairs, the deputy escorting him gets in his face, and at one point asks where he’s from. Once outside, that deputy then says that he has decided to demand his ID, because he’s now undertaking an investigation of a suspicious person who was making people in the courthouse “uneasy.”

Let’s sort through the legal issues here….

Courthouses in West Virginia have some confusing legal authorities presiding over them. There’s really three separate governmental authority figures: the court, the sheriff, and the county commission. There is one West Virginia Supreme Court case discussing this, which is State ex rel. Farley v. Spaulding (WV 1998). It notes that Article 8, Section 6 of the WV Constitution provides that, subject to the approval of the State Supreme Court, the local circuit court has the “authority and power” to establish local rules to govern that particular court, including administratively.

However, at the same time, Article 9, Section 11 of the WV Constitution provides that the local county commission possesses the police powers in their county, including at courthouses. Additionally, State Code (WV Code 7-3-2) mades that the county commission is responsible for providing a “suitable courthouse” at their expense, also possessing the authority and obligation to provide for courthouse security via the local elected sheriff.

Thus, the county sheriff is responsible for courthouse security. However, the court is ultimately in control of its courtrooms, generally speaking.

West Virginia State Trial Court Rule 8 provides that permission of the court is required “in and around the courtrooms” during judicial proceedings, which is granted at the discretion of the presiding judge. Trial Court Rule 8.05 provides that coverage of nonjudicial meetings “in the courtrooms” is also subject to permission, with the “concurrence of the sponsoring group.”

As for the ID laws in West Virginia, there is no state law requiring pedestrians to produce their ID. If there were, generally speaking, it would constitute a violation of the Fourth Amendment where reasonable suspicion was absent. The Fourth Circuit has previously denounced police officers seizing individuals based on non-particularized, general assumptions about suspects, which may be based on irrational, speculative, or otherwise improper fears, biases or falsehoods. (US v. Black 4th Cir. 2013).

Even with reasonable suspicion, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has held that in a non-traffic investigative detention, that refusal to identify oneself to a law enforcement officer does not, standing alone form the basis for a charge of obstructing a law enforcement officer. (State v. Snrsky WV 2003). “The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state.” State ex rel. Wilmoth v. Gustke (WV 2003).

On the charge of allegedly obstructing an officer, in violation of WV Code § 61-5-17(a), the plain language of the statute establishes that a person is guilty of obstruction when he, “by threats, menaces, acts or otherwise forcibly or illegally hinders or obstructs or attempts to hinder or obstruct a law-enforcement officer, probation officer or parole officer acting in his or her official capacity.”

The 4th Circuit recently held that in West Virginia, “lawful conduct is not sufficient to establish the statutory offense” of obstruction. They noted that West Virginia courts have held that “when done in an orderly manner, merely questioning or remonstrating with an officer while he or she is performing his or her duty, does not ordinarily constitute the offense of obstructing an officer.” (Hupp v. State Trooper Seth Cook 4th Cir. 2019).

Regarding the right to record, the federal district court in the very jurisdiction where this occurred held on July 13 of this month that there is a clearly established First Amendment right for a citizen record police, noting that federal circuits around the country have found a protected First Amendment right to film matters of public interest, including recording police officers conducting official duties in public. (Gibson v. Goldston SDWV 2022).

Ultimately, a citizen does have a First Amendment right to record their in-person public records request at a county courthouse, so long as they are otherwise engaging in lawful conduct. Doing so cannot be used to detain and forcibly ID the individual based on subjective irrational fears of law enforcement who decide to then conduct an “investigation” of the individual as a “suspicious” person. 

A forcible detainment and ID of the individual would be a Fourth Amendment seizure that would be unreasonable, and therefore unlawful. 

Moreover, there can be little question that a First Amendment auditor in the process of filming his interactions with public officials is engaging in First Amendment protected activity. To prohibit him from continuing to do so, unless he provides identification, is interference with his First Amendment rights. Subsequently demanding his identification, under threat of arrest for obstruction, as a result of his protected activity is very likely First Amendment retaliation. 

Police Caught on Doorbell Video Removing FJB Flag

A video went viral on Tik Tok showing Ring doorbell camera footage of a police officer removing a family’s “F” Joe Biden flag from its display on the front of the home. The homeowner explained in a subsequent video that he had been previously threatened with arrest for good ‘ole disorderly conduct if he continued to display the flag. Is this a violation of the First Amendment? What about the Fourth Amendment?

Back in February, I discussed the “F” the police T-shirt case out of Ohio, where the 6th Circuit issued an opinion denying qualified immunity to police officers sued for arresting a man for “disorderly conduct” for wearing a shirt containing protected First Amendment speech. In that case, the Court made very clear that police academies have to stop teaching young officers that any use of profanity is disorderly conduct. To the contrary, the law is clear that the First Amendment protects the use of profanity, so long as it’s unaccompanied by other conduct that could be construed as disorderly. Thus, the use of the “F word” in and of itself cannot be criminal conduct.

“It is well-established that ‘absent a more particularized and compelling reason for its actions, a State may not, consistently with the First and Fourteenth Amendments, make the simple public display of a four-letter expletive a criminal offense.’”

Cohen v. california scotus 1971

Not only can the “F word” be used, but it can be used to verbally criticize the police. Or, in this case, Joe Biden. As the U.S. Supreme Court has held, “The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state….”

Moreover, expressing criticism of a sitting U.S. President, via use of a flag, is pure First Amendment protected activity. The homeowner mentions in his follow up video that he had researched the town ordinances, and none were applicable, but rather that the mayor lived down the street and held an opposing political ideology. I’ll note that, even if there were a town ordinance, it would be unconstitutional, as a violation of the First Amendment. Now an HOA would be another matter, potentially. Why? Because that’s a private organization, and therefore cannot violate the First Amendment.

Also, what about the Fourth Amendment? As I’ve explained numerous times, the front porch of your home, which would include a flag sticking out of it, is considered part of your home – your castle – for Fourth Amendment purposes. If a police officer walks up and seizes a part of your home – something off of it – is that a seizure? You better believe it. Is it illegal? Illegal in this context means “unreasonable.” Unreasonable, when it comes to your home, is defined with a question: was there a warrant? No, then it’s illegal as a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Street Preacher Arrested in Bluefield, WV for Graphic Anti-Abortion Signs

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.

6th Circuit Denies Qualified Immunity for Arrest of Man Wearing “F” the Police Shirt

In 2016, police officers in Ohio pulled a man out of a crowd because he was wearing a “F” the police T-shirt, taunted him about the shirt, and ultimately arrested him under a “disorderly conduct” law. A few days ago, the Sixth Circuit issued an opinion denying qualified immunity to these officers in the pending civil rights lawsuit. I recently discussed a West Virginia case where police apparently thought they had the power to be the language police. This has been a widespread problem for many years. It’s not really that the police have sensitive ears, or that they’re concerned about the sensitive nature of innocent bystanders. It’s about respecting what they perceive to be their authority, as well as for use as a pretext to harass or detain people who are relevant to their interests.

The Court emphasized once again that it’s illegal for police officers to arrest people for using profane language alone, including the “F” word:

“The fighting words exception is very limited because it is inconsistent with the general principle of free speech recognized in our First Amendment jurisprudence.” Baskin v. Smith, 50 F. App’x 731, 736 (6th Cir. 2002). Therefore, “profanity alone is insufficient to establish criminal behavior.” Wilson v. Martin, 549 F. App’x 309, 311 (6th Cir. 2013)….

Further, both the Supreme Court and this court have made clear that “police officers . . . ‘are expected to exercise greater restraint in their response than the average citizen.’” Barnes v. Wright, 449 F.3d 709, 718 (6th Cir. 2006) (quoting Greene, 310 F.3d at 896). “Police officers are held to a higher standard than average citizens, because the First Amendment requires that they ‘tolerate coarse criticism.’” D.D., 645 F. App’x at 425 (quoting Kennedy, 635 F.3d at 216); see also City of Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451, 462–63 (1987) (“The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or to challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state.”)….

We have routinely protected the use of profanity when unaccompanied by other conduct that could be construed as disorderly. See Sandul, 119 F.3d at 1255 (“[T]he use of the ‘f-word’ in and of itself is not criminal conduct.”)….

We therefore conclude that the First Amendment protected Wood’s speech and thus his disorderly conduct arrest lacked probable cause. This conclusion is consistent with those of other circuits to have considered similar issues. See Payne v. Pauley, 337 F.3d 767, 776 (7th Cir. 2003) (“[T]he First Amendment protects even profanity-laden speech directed at police officers. Police officers reasonably may be expected to exercise a higher degree of restraint than the average citizen and should be less likely to be provoked into misbehavior by such speech.” (citing City of Houston, 482 U.S. at 461)); United States v. Poocha, 259 F.3d 1077, 1082 (9th Cir. 2001) (holding that yelling “fuck you” at an officer was not likely to provoke a violent response and “[c]riticism of the police, profane or otherwise, is not a crime”); Buffkins v. City of Omaha, 922 F.2d 465, 472 (8th Cir. 1990) (plaintiff’s “use of the word ‘asshole’ could not reasonably have prompted a violent response from the arresting officers”).

The Court denied Qualified Immunity to the officers, finding that the case law was full of similar examples of illegal arrests, where officers were found to have violated constitutional rights by making similar arrests, including in cases out of Ohio, where this incident occurred. As the U.S. Supreme Court has held, “The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state,” a “conclusion [that] finds a familiar echo in the common law.”

Not only did the Sixth Circuit find that the officers had committed a false arrest in violation of the Fourth Amendment, but they also likely committed the civil rights violation of First Amendment retaliation. The three general elements of a First Amendment Retaliation claim are that:

  1. “that he engaged in constitutionally protected speech,”
  2. “that he suffered an adverse action likely to chill a person of ordinary firmness from continuing to engage in protected speech,” and
  3. “that the protected speech was a substantial or motivating factor in the decision to take the adverse action.”

[T]he defendants do not contest that Wood’s shirt was constitutionally protected speech, nor could they. Wood’s “Fuck the Police” shirt was clearly protected speech. “It is well-established that ‘absent a more particularized and compelling reason for its actions, a State may not, consistently with the First and Fourteenth Amendments, make the simple public display of a four-letter expletive a criminal offense.’” Sandul, 119 F.3d at 1254–55 (alterations omitted) (quoting Cohen, 403 U.S. at 26)…..

Here, police officers removed Wood from a public event under armed escort. That act was neither “‘inconsequential’ as a matter of law,” Wurzelbacher v. Jones-Kelley, 675 F.3d 580, 585 (6th Cir. 2012), nor just a “petty slight[] or minor annoyance[],” Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co., 548 U.S. at 68. Wood satisfies the adverse action element….

While the defendants argue that they removed Wood from the fairgrounds because he was filming people, Wood alleges that Blair walked up to him flanked by the defendants and yelled “Where’s this shirt? I want to see this shirt.” DE 55-2, Wood Dep., Page ID 468. As the officers surrounded Wood and escorted him from the building, one of them said to Wood, “You’ve been given an order to vacate the property. So you’re leaving.” Troutman Cam #1, 00:32–35. While walking Wood through the fairgrounds, with Wood repeatedly questioning whether the defendants had taken an oath to uphold the Constitution, one of the officers said they were “escorting . . . [Wood] to the front gate.” Johnson Cam 2:29–35. And while en route to jail, one officer said to Wood, “How’s that work? You got a shirt that said, ‘f the police,’ but you want us to uphold the Constitution?” Troutman Cam #2, 17:15–21. A reasonable jury, considering these facts, could conclude the officers were motivated to surround Wood and require him to leave in part because he wore a shirt that said “Fuck the Police.” We reverse the grant of summary judgment to the defendants on this claim.

Thus the case was sent back to the trial court so that the case could proceed to jury trial. You would think that police agencies and officers would get the memo by now that profane language alone doesn’t somehow trigger martial law….