Monday, September 21, 2015

Federal Judge: Profanely Insulting An Entire Town On A Speeding Ticket Is Protected Speech

Sep 18th 2015, 16:35, by Timothy Geigner

Do you remember Willian Barboza? No? He was the un-creative but quite profane young man who, upon being pulled over for speeding the laughably-named Liberty, New York, mailed in his ticket and fine with these wonderful words of wisdom scrawled across the top.

Fine, so Barboza isn't exactly Robert Frost. Still, his admittedly vulgar etchings probably weren't reason enough for the city to refuse his payment and subsequently charge him with harrassment under a horribly unconstitutional law. The city went that route anyway, though, and the matter went before a court, where the judge dismissed the charges against Barboza, as his profanity upon the ticket was obviously protected speech. I had thought that was the end of the story. I was wrong.
Shortly after that, Barboza, with the help of the New York Civil Liberties Union and attorney Stephen Bergstein, filed a lawsuit against the town of Liberty, assistant district attorney Robert Zangla and the two officers who arrested Barboza. The suit alleged that the arrest had violated Barboza's First Amendment right to free speech. 

Barboza's attorneys argued that officials in Liberty had seriously misinterpreted New York's aggravated harassment statute. The statute says it's against the law for a person to "harass, annoy, threaten or alarm” someone "by telephone, by telegraph, or by mail, or by transmitting or delivering any other form of written communication." But Seibel said Thursday that what Barboza wrote, "though crude and offensive to some, did not convey an imminent threat and was made in the context of complaining about government activity," and therefore did not violate the statute.
And, frankly, it's hard to argue with his attorneys. The wonderful thing about free speech is that the speech is free even if the listener doesn't like it. The city's attempt to twist a harrassment law into the kind of pretzel that allows it to silence the criticism of government or law enforcement was deplorable and not befitting a town that takes the name of Liberty. As a person who relies on language some might find salty in order to make or emphasize a point, it would be a travesty to have to wonder whether simple expression might result in arrest and jail time. I, frankly, can't think of anything more un-American. 

The judge hearing Barboza and the NYCLU's case agreed with them completely.
Judge Cathy Seibel said that prosecutors and police in Liberty, New York, violated Willian Barboza's civil rights when they arrested and prosecuted him for writing "Fuck your shitty town bitches" on a ticket he received in 2012. The judge stated that Zangla is liable for damages because he violated Barboza’s clearly established constitutional rights, but that the two police officers are not liable because Zangla instructed them to make the arrest. Seibel also ruled that Liberty will have to stand trial for failing to train police officers regarding the First Amendment.
Perhaps we should be getting the primary schools Zangla went to involved as well, because First Amendment protection is elementary school civics class stuff. Regardless, it's a win for all of us salty-mouthed bastards.

from Your Daily digest for Techdirt., 7:59 AM, 9-19-15