Since the Supreme Court decision in City of Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451 (1987), the courts have extended significant First Amendment protections to an individual’s right to verbally “oppose or challenge police actions,” so long as the conduct in question does not amount to “physical obstruction” (quotes from the Supreme Court’s holding in City of Houston v. Hill). In 2015, this issue reemerged in Washington v. E.J.J., a decision by the Washington Supreme Court.
Essentially, the court held that the “offensive speech” of an arrestee was protected under the First Amendment. The incident in question took place in the context of the arrest of an intoxicated resident of a house. Police had arrived and attempted to calm the resident down. Meanwhile, another resident of the house told officers not to use a nightstick on another individual involved in the altercation because she was his sister. After being led away from the scene, this individual became irate and began yelling profanities at the officers.
At some point the individual was told that he was engaging in obstruction; following that, he was then arrested on the charge of obstructing a law enforcement officer. The Washington Supreme Court, however, found that the individual who was arrested had the right to criticize how the police were handling the situation. The court stated that “obstruction statutes may not be used to limit citizens’ rights to express verbal criticism, even abusive criticism, at police officers.” The court also held that the arrestee had the right to direct profanity at officers so long as he did not physically interfere with the officers.
While this decision applied only to Washington state law, it is illustrative in showing how courts continue to uphold the legacy of City of Houston v. Hill. These decisions are illustrative in that they can help guide how law enforcement officers ought to react to profanity and provocation from citizens. In situations like these, it’s important to remember that First Amendment protections do extend to citizens voicing their displeasure to police officers.
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