First Amendment Freedom of Profanity and Accompanying “Gestures” – Even Towards Police

The First Amendment protects a Utah residents rights to speak their opinions and frustrations, even by the use of profanity and accompanying gestures during dealings with police.

Photo by: John Nakamura Remy

First Amendment

The First Amendment to the Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The phrase “freedom of speech” gets thrown around a lot, yet many citizens may wonder exactly how free they can be with their speech, especially when dealing with police.

Profanity

Many individuals would not want to participate in a verbal altercation with a police officer, yet some may blurt out profanity or obscenities before thinking of the possible consequences. Fortunately, freedom of speech protects a person’s right to use profanity, whether spoken or nonverbal like the use of the middle finger. When a Utah resident is dealing with police, there is a good chance that emotions will be running high.

Photo by: Ron Bennetts

Someone facing an arrest or feeling like they were the recipient of a biased traffic stop might have some choice words for attending officers. Perhaps they were able to bite their tongue but couldn’t help flipping the bird toward less than friendly police. Or maybe a person’s normal vocabulary is similar to that of a sailors and using obscenities is just how they communicate with everyone. Regardless of why someone would use profanity with police, it might make officers uncomfortable but it is protected free speech.

Don’t take it too far

While everyone should feel free enough to use whatever language they want or give the middle finger when they feel like it, there are times when profanities and other obscenities could cross the line. If someone uses their harsh language to try to get others to join in a fight against officers, that could be considered disorderly conduct or inciting a riot. Another example is if the foul language being used describes sexual behavior against children that most people would find offensive or disturbing. In these and like incidents, using profanity could end with criminal charges.

Spoken crimes

Photo by: Jennifer Moo

There are some words and phrases beyond profanities that are also not protected under the First Amendment. Some of these include:
Threats of violence – Utah Code 76-5-107 warns residents that verbally “[threatening] to commit any offense involving bodily injury, death, or substantial property damage, and [acting] with intent to place a person in fear of imminent serious bodily injury, substantial bodily injury, or death” . . . is punishable as a class B misdemeanor.
Threats of terrorism – Utah Code 76-5-107.3 explains that “a person commits a threat of terrorism if the person threatens to commit any offense involving bodily injury, death, or substantial property damage, and: threatens the use of a [real or hoax] weapon of mass destruction . . . “ A verbal threat of that magnitude is a second degree felony.
Harassment – Harassing another person or as Utah Code 76-5-106 defines as “. . . with intent to frighten or harass another, [when the actor] communicates a written or recorded threat to commit any violent felony” is a class B misdemeanor.
Obstruction of Justice – According to Section 76-8-306, “An actor commits obstruction of justice if the actor, . . . inten[ds] to hinder, delay, or prevent the investigation, apprehension, prosecution, conviction, or punishment of any person regarding conduct that constitutes a criminal offense”. A couple ways someone could use their words to obstruct justice is by warning a suspect of police activity or by providing false information to law enforcement. Obstruction of justice is charged one degree less than the crime for which the person is obstructing.

Use freedom of speech wisely

Not all talking points or usage of profanities are protected free speech, but the First Amendment can help those who have a tendency to run their mouth when talking to law enforcement. If someone is facing charges due to their use of profanity when dealing with police or if they crossed the legal line with their words, it is best to consult with a criminal defense attorney before attempting to play the free speech card.

Criminal Charges For Utah Man Who Made Threat of Terrorism in YouTube Comment Section

A Utah man is facing criminal charges after he used the comment section on YouTube to make a threat of terrorism toward the site’s employees.

Keyboard warrior

Photo by: Kelly Schott

35 year old David Levon Swanson of Orem, Utah was arrested following a series of hateful comments he made on YouTube videos that led the video site’s employees fearing for their safety. Some of Swanson’s comments including talking about the executives being murdered as well as them not “last[ing] much longer”. He later specified that he would “visit their campus in two weeks . . . [and] shoot any employees exiting”. That final comment, where he crossed the line from wishing death on someone to detailing what appeared to be an actual threat, could have been the final evidence needed for authorities to consider the threat tangible.

Threat of Terrorism

Utah Code 76-5-107.3 states “A person commits a threat of terrorism if the person threatens to commit any offense involving bodily injury, death, or substantial property damage, and:

    • threatens the use of a [real or fake] weapon of mass destruction” or “acts with intent to:
      • intimidate or coerce a civilian population or to influence or affect the conduct of a government or a unit of government;
      • prevent or interrupt the occupation of a building or a portion of the building, a place to which the public has access, or a facility or vehicle of public transportation operated by a common carrier; or
      • cause an official or volunteer agency organized to deal with emergencies to take action due to the person’s conduct posing a serious and substantial risk to the general public.”

Making a threat of terrorism is punishable as a second degree felony, third degree felony, or a class A misdemeanor depending on which of the above described subsections were violated.

Which Amendment?

Swanson claimed following his arrest that he did not make a threat to shoot the employees with a gun. He stated that when he used the term “shoot” he meant it in reference to shooting a camera. In his alleged threat he stated that by shooting the employees, he was exercising his First Amendment rights. The First Amendment protects the freedom of religion, free speech, as well as the right to peacefully assemble. It also protects a person’s right to photography as long as they are taking pictures to send a message and that the pictures are going to be shared with an audience. Law enforcement read Swanson’s comment as a threat to use a gun to which he should have stated his right to use his Second Amendment right to bare arms. Either Swanson got his Amendment and their accompanying rights mixed up in his alleged threat of terrorism or his threat to shoot was meant merely to take candid photos of the employees.

Express or implied

If the comment to shoot the YouTube employees had been the only thing Swanson had blurted out online, there is a chance law enforcement may have understood that his intent was to take pictures, not kill people. Unfortunately, the other comments depicting death and murder of the employees painted his intent in a more distressing light. Utah Code 76-5-107.3 notes that regarding a threat of terrorism, “It is not a defense under this section that the person did not attempt to carry out or was incapable of carrying out the threat.” Additionally, A threat under this section may be express or implied.”Regardless of what Swanson actually intended to do, his history of violent speech online set him up to face criminal charges for any threat made.

Freedom to curb your online rants

While everyone including Swanson has the freedom to speak their mind, it does not mean that anything said out loud on online is okay. Harassment, threats of terrorism, or violent threats are all punishable under the law. Anyone facing criminal charges for something they said should consult with a defense attorney.

Freedom of Speech Does Not Permit Making Threats of Violence against the President

A Utah man is facing decades behind bars for repeatedly making threats of violence against the President, something not considered a right under the Freedom of Speech Clause.

Threatening the President

Photo by: Dave Newman

33 year old Travis Luke Dominguez of Midvale, Utah was arrested after calling 911 on numerous occasions and threatening the life of President Trump. Although there is no evidence reportedly linking Dominguez’s threats of violence to any substantial danger as he is known for blowing smoke, he was arrested and tried in federal court for using his words to make threats of violence against the President.

Threats of violence

Utah Code 76-5-107 notes that making threats of violence is illegal if accompanied with “a show of immediate force or violence” or while “act[ing] with intent to place a person in fear of imminent serious bodily injury . . . or death”. If someone threatens another and acts with intent or violence, is a class B misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. Making a threat against the President however, regardless or any accompanying action is considered a class E felony and punishable by up to five years in federal prison according to 18 U.S. Code § 871.

Freedom of (most) speech

Hateful talk towards POTUS is typical nowadays with many voicing their distaste orally or through social media accounts with vicious flare. While sharing negative opinions about the president is a constitutionally given right to any American citizen, knowingly and willfully sending threatening mail or “otherwise mak[ing] any such threat against the President . . . “ is crossing the line. This law that has been adopted into the United States legal system stems from the English Treason Act of 1351 which made it a crime to plan or “imagine” death to a member of the Royal Family. While the Puritans freed themselves from English rule, they somehow chose to keep a law placing an elected citizen on a pedestal much like the King or Queen’s with special contradictions in place to override constitutional rights of the everyday citizens. Residents of the United States are encouraged to choose their free speech carefully when speaking of individuals in high places to avoid criminal charges.