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….

Update on the School Bus Drivers Suspended for Attending a Trump Rally

Join me live at 8pm ET tonight for an update on the Jefferson County, West Virginia school bus drivers who were suspended for attended the Trump rally on January 6, 2021. Despite being nowhere near what occurred at the Capitol, they found themselves suspended and accused of misconduct, and then later vindicated. We files suit for First Amendment retaliation. Here’s what’s happened so far in the litigation….. Freedom is Scary, Ep. No. 77. Also available on our Facebook page.

Does the First Amendment Only Apply to Media? Is There a Right to Record?

Do you have to be a journalist to have First Amendment protections to film in public? Is there a right to record police or other government officials in public? Let me tell you what the federal courts have said…..

To record what there is for the eye to see, or the ear to hear, corroborates or lays aside subjective impressions for objective facts. Hence to record is to see and hear more accurately. Recordings also facilitate discussion because of the ease in which they can be widely distributed via different forms of media. Accordingly, recording police activity in public falls squarely within the First Amendment right of access to information. As no doubt the press has this right, so does the public. See PG Publ’g. Co. v. Aichele, 705 F.3d 91, 99 (3d Cir. 2013); Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665, 684, 92 S.Ct. 2646, 33 L.Ed.2d 626 (1972) (quoting Fields v. City of Phila., 862 F.3d 353, 359 (3rd Cir. 2017)).

Under the First Amendment’s right of access to information the public has the commensurate right to record—photograph, film, or audio record—police officers conducting official police activity in public areas. Fields v. City of Phila., 862 F.3d 353, 360 (3rd Cir. 2017) (“The First Amendment protects actual photos, videos, and recordings, and for this protection to have meaning the Amendment must also protect the act of creating that material.” (citation omitted)); See also ACLU v. Alvarez, 679 F.3d 583, 599–600 (7th Cir.), cert. denied, ––– U.S. ––––, 133 S.Ct. 651, 184 L.Ed.2d 459 (2012) (holding that an Illinois eavesdropping statute did not protect police officers from a civilian openly recording them with a cell phone); Turner v. Lieutenant Driver, 848 F.3d 678, 689 (5th Cir. 2017) (“[T]he First Amendment protects the act of making film, as there is no fixed First Amendment line between the act of creating speech and the speech itself.” (quotation omitted); W. Watersheds Project v. Michael, 869 F.3d 1189 (10th Cir. 2017) (agreeing with several sister circuits that recording the conduct of officials in general is protected First Amendment speech); Glik v. Cunniffe, 655 F.3d 78, 79 (1st Cir.2011) (holding there is an “unambiguous[ ]” constitutionally protected right to videotape police carrying out their duties in public); Smith v. Cumming, 212 F.3d 1332, 1333 (11th Cir.2000) (finding plaintiffs “had a First Amendment right, subject to reasonable time, manner and place restrictions, to photograph or videotape police conduct”); Fordyce v. City of Seattle, 55 F.3d 436, 439 (9th Cir.1995) (recognizing plaintiff’s videotaping of police officers as a “First Amendment right to film matters of public interest”). 

Furthermore, there can be no doubt that the public has the right to record police officers and government officials from the vantage point of standing on their own private property – and indeed, standing in their own front yard, or within their home.

Can the recordings then be seized by police?

Recently, the Fourth Circuit observed in the context of a claim of seizure of cell phone video footage by law enforcement, that we live “[i]n an era in which cell phones are increasingly used to capture much of what happens in daily life” and that such recordings are protected from seizure by law enforcement under the Fourth Amendment. Hupp v. State Trooper Seth Cook, 931 F.3d 307, 329 (4th Cir. 2019).

But, keep in mind, they could still be subject to seizure without a warrant under the exigent circumstances doctrine…..

The “Outlaw Barber” Arrested for Refusing to Close During the Lockdown Files Civil Rights Lawsuit

Today we filed suit in the case of the “Outlaw Barber,” Winerd “Les” Jenkins, a 73 year old combat veteran and former 27-year Deputy U.S. Marshall, who was arrested for refusing to close his barbershop during the Governor’s lockdown in April of 2020. We filed a Section 1983 civil rights lawsuit in federal court, in the Northern District of West Virginia.

The case was detailed last year in a Federalist article titled, West Virginia Barber’s Arrest Shows Failings Of The Bureaucratic State:

When Winerd “Les” Jenkins first became a barber, Neil Armstrong hadn’t yet set foot on the moon. For over five decades, Jenkins has made a living with his scissors and razor. For the past decade, he’s worked his craft from a storefront in Inwood, West Virginia. At Les’ Place Traditional Barber Shop, you can get a regular men’s haircut for $16 and a shave for $14—but come prepared to pay the old-fashioned way: in cash.

His insistence on “cash only” isn’t the only thing that’s old-school about Jenkins. He lives with his wife of 52 years on a small farm, where the couple raises rescued animals. He believes in paying his bills on time. He doesn’t use the internet, email, or text messaging. And he’s skeptical that his profession can become illegal overnight merely on the governor’s say-so.

He was ultimately arrested by two deputies from the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office, who transported Mr. Jenkins for incarceration and charged him with “obstructing” an officer. The prosecuting attorney’s office of that county then aggressively prosecuted Mr. Jenkins for the better part of a year, until the judge finally dismissed the charge in January of 2021, finding that it would be a violation of Mr. Jenkins’s constitutional rights to prosecute him for violating the governor’s executive order.

We asserted two separate violations of Mr. Jenkins’ Fourth Amendment rights (unreasonable search and seizure and false arrest), as well as a violation of Mr. Jenkins’ First Amendment rights. It’s already been assigned a case number. Read it for yourself:

I’ve already revealed the body cam footage from one of the deputies, which caught much of the interaction on video: