Human Rights

Cursing Out Police Is Perfectly Legal, But Cops Routinely Arrest People for It

Why do so many cops needs a refresher course in civil liberties and the First Amendment?

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

Being rude is not illegal, even if some of us sometimes wish it were. Being rude to cops, including cursing them out may be ill-advised, but it is protected speech.Yet that doesn’t mean you won’t end up in bracelets anyway.

As the Marshall Project reports, many citizens are illegally arrested for cursing at cop, when in fact, their speech is protected. A police officer from the McKinney, TX police department was captured on the now infamous pool party video throwing a 15-year-old girl to the ground after he accused her of mouthing off. He was later fired for his actions.

Last week, the Washington Supreme Court threw out an obstruction case against a man who cursed at cops after they were called to investigate a disturbance at his home in 2011. In December, a Georgia woman was awarded a $100,000 settlement after cops arrested her in 2012 and placed her in solitary confinement for cursing at them and flipping the officers the bird.

Threatening speech is a different matter. If someone threatens violence against a cop (“I’ll fuck you up!”) or challenges a law enforcement officer to a fight, those are “fighting words.” Whether or not they are meant seriously, fighting words can lead to a legal arrest. Other than that, cursing at cops in frustration after being stopped or dealing with an unpleasant police situation should not get you locked up.

Eric Guster, a civil rights defense attorney based in Birmingham, Ala., told AlterNet that people should record verbal interactions with officers because it will be a matter of “he said, she said” if a cop slaps handcuffs on you for cursing at him.

“By the time a police officer gets his story together, the police report will read, ‘The person said, I’m going to kick your ass.’ Just like the South Carolina shooting where Walter Scott was accused of reaching for the cop’s taser. Then we saw what really happened when the video came out,” Guster said. “That is why I encourage people to record all of the interactions they can. Sometimes, they can’t get video, but at minimum, you can turn on your recorder, put it on your car seat, put it in your pocket, just to record the events.”

There are no statistics available to determine how many citizens are arrested for cursing at officers, but courts around the country consistently rule in favor of defendants who find themselves behind bars for using profane, but protected speech against law enforcement.

Last Thursday, the Court of Appeals in Manhattan overturned the conviction of Richard Gonzalez, who had been charged with disorderly conduct and possession of a weapon after he ranted and raved expletives at cops. He was convicted and sentenced to three and a half to seven years in prison. The appeals court ruled Gonzalez wasn’t engaged in disorderly conduct just by virtue of shouting obscenities, and that this behavior wasn’t a “potential or immediate public problem.” And because he didn’t commit a crime, the cops had no probable cause to search him.

Eric Sanders, a civil rights attorney who served as a police officer in the NYPD for more than 12 years, told AlterNet that most of the cops making these arrests should never have been given a badge and a gun.

“There are too many people who don’t belong in policing,” said Sanders, who has spent much of his legal career suing the NYPD for various civil rights allegations.“That is never addressed by anybody. You’re supposed to have thick skin. They teach you that in the police academy. You represent the government, and when you represent the government, it is not always favored by the people. So what? As long as they are following the law, who cares?”

The use of vulgar speech against police officers came to a head during the late 1980s when N.W.A. released Straight Outta Compton, which featured a track titled, “Fuck the Police.” Many officers who served as security for music concerts refused to protect the young hip hop group when they toured the country. During a Detroit concert, police rushed to the stage after Ice Cube started speaking lyrics from the song. The group fled the stage and were later questioned by the cops. No one was charged. Asked why the officers rushed the stage, one was quoted as saying, “We just wanted to show the kids that you can’t say ‘Fuck the Police’ in Detroit.”

Sanders believes the reaction to N.W.A. was purely racial. White America, he says, wasn’t ready to hear a group of young black men use music to express speech that challenged police authority—and it still isn’t.

“Privileged white people talk about the government all day long on television,” he said. “Rush Limbaugh and others say all kinds of things about the government. You see them being arrested? They’re not going to have street encounters. The average person walking around in the neighborhood is likely to have street encounters because the police interactions with them are diametrically different than what would occur on the Upper East Side.”

People are often charged with disorderly conduct for cursing at officers. In 2012, the ACLU of New York found that black students in city schools made up a majority of the disorderly conduct summonses for the 2011-2012 school year. Last year, the New York Daily News reported that, between 2001 and 2013, a disproportionate number of minorities were arrested for disorderly conduct under “broken windows.” In Minneapolis, a black person is 8.86 times more likely to be arrested than a white person for disorderly conduct, according to the ACLU.

While it is not known exactly how many of these arrests are the result of profanity being used toward police officers, it does reveal a trend of hyper-policing that troubles Sanders.  

“As long as they are not breaking the law, people are allowed to have their First Amendment right to say, ‘Fuck the police.’ It’s reality. ‘Fuck the police. I hate all cops.’ Is it a nice thing to hear? No. But is it legal? Sure it is. There is no law against that,” he said.

That may be so, but Guster warns that it's still smart to keep your cool during a stop or interaction with law enforcement. The hassle going to court to fight the case, pay bail and secure a lawyer may not be worth it.  

“You can cuss at them all day, but they can arrest you, although it’s not legal,” he said. “It’s just the trouble of dealing with it later on that is the problem. And the police know that.”

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.

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