The First Amendment permits criminal punishment for speech only when it falls within an established exception. True threats, incitement to violence, obscenity, and fighting words are among the categories of speech falling outside the protections of the First Amendment (although the fighting words exception is arguably defunct as a practical matter, as I wrote here). Each category has narrow definitions and standards that must be met as a matter of constitutional law before criminal liability can be imposed. My former colleague Jonathan Holbrook has written about the incitement exception and the true threats exception before. I wanted to write about another First Amendment exception, one that is much broader than the rest—speech integral to criminal conduct. Read on for the details.
Editor’s note: This post contains vulgar language that isn’t suitable for children and quite possibly many adults. If you’re an email subscriber, your spam filter probably won’t like it, either. Also, it is quite long.
A federal court of appeals recently ruled in favor of a man who called a group of police officers “bitch ass fucking pigs,” “motherfuckers,” and “dirty rat bastards.” It found that his arrest on disorderly conduct charges was unjustified because “mere epithets” directed at a law enforcement officer, no matter how coarse or profane, do not constitute fighting words and are protected by the First Amendment. Wood v. Eubanks, 25 F.4th 414 (6th Cir. 2022). This raises the question: do police officers really have to put up with this?
Last week, the SOG offered a criminal law update featuring various members of the criminal law faculty. If you missed it and are interested viewing the recording, the webinar should be posted here within a few weeks. This post will be familiar to those who attended, as I covered the topic there. Consider watching the program—it is free to view for educational purposes, and a modest cost if you need the CLE credit. For those that prefer their criminal law updates from the blog, read on!
Yesterday the court of appeals vacated Brady Lorenzo Shackelford’s convictions for felony stalking on the basis that the prosecution of Shackelford for violating G.S. 14-277.3A impermissibly infringed upon his constitutional right to free speech. This post will review the court’s opinion in State v. Shackelford, ___ N.C. App. ___ (March 19, 2019), consider how it might affect future prosecutions, and suggest statutory amendments to stave off future constitutional challenges.