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Another Take on the Gates Case

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Editor’s note: Much like newspapers sometimes waive the length limit on letters to the editor “to permit a fuller response,” I’m posting in full John Rubin’s detailed counterpoint to my previous post on the Gates case. John’s position is thoughtful and reasonable and I don’t plan to debate the issue further, beyond making the following three points, which interested readers should peruse after they read John’s post: (1) as I noted previously, the volume, tone, and tenor of a person’s remarks may be as important as their content in determining whether they are “likely to provoke violent retaliation,” and news reports suggest that some or all of those factors may cut in favor of a disorderly conduct charge in this case; (2) news reports also suggest that Gates went beyond mere “mouthing off” or being “obnoxious,” and likely “got in [Crowley’s] face,” much like the defendant in Tucker got in the principal’s face, even going so far as to make a comment — “I’ll speak to your mama outside” — that might be interpreted as an invitation to fight; and (3) that John’s suggestion that abusive language directed at police officers is measured against a higher standard than abusive language directed at others is not supported by any North Carolina authority. So I remain of the view that while a disorderly conduct charge on the apparent facts of the Gates case would not be a slam dunk, it might be proper under North Carolina law.

I’m afraid I must express my disagreement with my colleague’s blog post on the Gates case. (You can view Jeff’s previous post here.) I don’t mean to be disorderly. I’m just exercising my civic right and even fulfilling my civic duty. I don’t have all the facts in the Gates case so I can’t speak conclusively about what happened. Nor do I pretend to be an expert on race relations. What I want to talk about is what Professor Gates was specifically arrested for-mouthing off to someone in authority. He wasn’t arrested for refusing to follow orders (other than refusing to shut up) — what we would call resist, delay, and obstruct in North Carolina. He was arrested for what he said to and about Officer Crowley. Before I wax eloquent about the importance of questioning authority in a free society, I want to talk first about why being publicly critical and even verbally obnoxious toward public officials, without more, is not a crime in North Carolina.

Our disorderly conduct statute, G.S. 14-288.2(a)(2), provides that for abusive language to constitute disorderly conduct, it must create a public disturbance and, in the words of the statute, be “intended and plainly likely to provoke violent retaliation.” On this I agree with Jeff, but I think the quoted language deserves further attention. The General Assembly added it in 1971 to deal with a constitutional defect in the previous version of the statute, which made it a crime to use offensive, abusive, and disturbing language alone. In State v. Summrell, 282 N.C. 157 (1972), the North Carolina Supreme Court recognized that the previous version of the statute was unconstitutional, finding that speech, even if offensive, is protected under the First Amendment unless it amounts to “fighting words.” See also Johnson v. Campbell, 332 F.3d 199 (3d Cir. 2003) (analyzing U.S. Supreme Court cases and recognizing that this standard requires nothing less than “an invitation to exchange fisticuffs”). The cases in Jeff’s blog post reflect the “fighting words” requirement now a part of our disorderly conduct statute. All involved more than mere name calling, criticism, or coarse language; they involved threatening, fight-seeking behavior. For example, in the most recent of the decisions (State v. Tucker, 2004 WL 943775 (N.C. Ct. App. May 4, 2004) (unpublished)), the defendant did not just call the principal a “fat ass bitch,” insulting and offensive to be sure, she refused to leave the principal’s office after several requests, necessitating a call to the police, and “aggressively got in [the principal’s] face.” So, my first point is that the First Amendment gives a wide berth to people to speak their minds, forbidding the criminalization of speech except in narrow circumstances. See also Ronald D. Rotunda & John E. Nowak, Treatise on Constitutional Law and Procedure § 20.40 (4th ed. 2008) (more recent cases indicate that the U.S. Supreme Court does not look favorably on prosecutions for “fighting words”).

Second, in my view the already-considerable protection for speech is even greater when the speech is directed toward public officials. The essence of the First Amendment is to protect the right to criticize the government, even through profanity. See Johnson v. Campbell, 332 F.3d at 213 (defendant’s profanity toward officer was emotionally expressive of his displeasure with the officer’s handling of the situation, did not constitute fighting words, and did not provide probable cause to arrest), cited in North Carolina Crimes: A Guidebook on the Elements of Crime at p. 413 (6th ed. 2007). Relatedly, public officials-representing the state and possessing the authority to arrest, handcuff, and use force-have an obligation to exercise restraint in dealing with criticism, even if offensive. For example, in Lewis v. City of New Orleans, 415 U.S. 130 (1974), the defendant was arrested for allegedly saying to an officer, “You god damn m.f. police-I am going to (the Superintendent of Police) about this.” The U.S. Supreme Court found that the law under which the defendant was arrested, which was similar to the previous version of North Carolina’s disorderly conduct statute, was unconstitutionally broad. The comments of concurring Justice Lewis Powell are particularly instructive (and uncannily appropriate to the Gates case). He observed that it was unlikely “that the words said to have been used here would have precipitated a physical confrontation between the middle-aged woman who spoke them and the police officer in whose presence they were uttered.” Justice Powell observed further that “a properly trained officer may reasonably be expected to exercise a higher degree of restraint than the average citizen, and thus be less likely to respond belligerently to fighting words.” That has to be true in a free society. I worry at the notion that words could be regarded as “likely to provoke violent retaliation” by government officials if disapproved of by them. See City of Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451 (1987) (“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.”)

One of the cases Jeff cites (State v. Cunningham, 34 N.C. App. 72 (1977)) suggests that a law enforcement officer’s potential reaction to offensive words is to be judged by the same standard as that applied to an average person. I don’t believe this isolated statement reflects the state of our law. The statement wasn’t necessary to the resolution of the case. The defendant in Cunningham, like the defendants in the other cases cited by Jeff, engaged in other disorderly behavior, including threatening to run over the officer in his car. I don’t believe our courts, if faced with a case divorced from the sort of circumstances in Cunningham and in light of the constitutional considerations, would find that a trained law enforcement officer should really be judged by the same standard as the average person on the street.

The bottom line is that our law does NOT permit a person to be arrested for or charged with a crime for, without more, abusive or offensive language toward a law enforcement officer. Now for my feeble attempt at eloquence. The right of free speech under the First Amendment is precious, particularly when compared with the paucity of rights in other parts of the world. Further, for the First Amendment to retain its vigor, we need, for lack of a better word, loudmouths-people willing to risk a confrontation with authority to speak out against real and perceived injustices. See Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989) (the First Amendment may “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”). We also need hard-working, underappreciated public officials, willing and able to accept constructive criticism, grit their teeth and ignore the less-than-constructive remarks, and intervene with the force of law only when someone’s actions are truly intended and likely to provoke violent retaliation.

One comment on “Another Take on the Gates Case

  1. I encourage John Rubin to do a ride-along with his local law enforcement agency one night in a particularly rough part of town. It is clear that he has never heard the cavalcade of profanity that is often directed towards law enforcement. Only the sheer volume of paperwork and the time it takes to arrest someone prevents more arrests for disorderly conduct. While I am not arguing that Emily Post write General Statutes, there are people out there who are so offensive, that we need laws against their actions. I have even dealt with people so abhorrent that the jail refused to accept them. I imagine as a lawyer, the author spends most of him time in the courtroom, and not on the streets where society is not as polite. Ironically, the author ignores a group of government officials who have (and often exercise) the power to arrest people who are openly critical of them: judges. Had Gates made his comments in court, he would be serving a 90 day sentence right now, no questions asked.

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