The Ohio Eighth District Court of Appeals recently held that the Village of Woodmere violated the First Amendment by arresting and prosecuting a citizen simply for swearing at a police officer. The case, Village of Woodmere v. Joseph Workman, is a significant victory for the right to peacefully object to police misbehavior when they step over the line. In other words, it is a victory for free speech. Workman is represented by the free speech lawyers at Bolek Besser Glesius in Cleveland, Ohio. The decision can be read here.
The Supreme Court has long held that the “First Amendment protects a significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge directed at police officers.” Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451, 462–63 (1987). Courts have consistently reaffirmed this central tenet of the First Amendment, holding that the police may not arrest someone merely for insulting or swearing at them. It is only if speech directed at the police crosses the threshold into the “very limited” fighting words exception that it loses First Amendment protection. Narrow to begin with, the fighting words exception becomes even narrower where the police are concerned because police are trained to exercise “a higher degree of restraint” than the average citizen.
In our case, a Woodmere Police Sergeant arrested Joseph Workman merely for cursing at him. While explicitly citing his First Amendment rights, Joe Workman called a Woodmere Police Sergeant an “asshole,” a “dummy,” and a “fucking…,” but did not yell, invade the Sergeant’s personal space, or make any hostile gestures. Nevertheless, the Sergeant escalated the situation and openly taunted Workman to “keep it up.” When Workman took the bait, the Sergeant arrested him. Woodmere then charged and prosecuted him for disorderly conduct. But because Workman’s words did not rise to the level of fighting words, the First Amendment protected his speech.
Recognizing Woodmere’s actions violated clearly established First Amendment precedent, on January 13, 2022, the Ohio Eighth District Court of Appeals vacated Workman’s conviction. As the Court pointed out, Woodmere arrested and charged Workman “entirely based” on his speech. The First Amendment prohibits that.
Swearing at the police is not behavior to condone. But crude is not the same as criminal, and the First Amendment prohibits arrest and prosecution for merely insulting or cursing at the police. Workman’s conviction was unconstitutional and the Court of Appeals was correct to vacate it on free speech grounds.