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.

When a Family Turns Their Teenager Over to Police

In light of the recent incidents of extreme violence at the hands of teenagers, many ask why parents and other relatives don’t see the signs prior to these events and turn their own children over to police.

Ignorance or denial

Photo by: Emma Craig

Many parents and guardians are unaware their teens are capable of or even thinking of such heinous acts as those that continue to occur throughout the county. Others parents perhaps either ignore the signs and shrug them off as typical teen behavior or try to deal with more severe matters privately in the home. Other families realize the authorities need to be involved and may have a difficult time making that call.

Making that tough call

One grandma in Everett Washington made that call that any parent or grandparent dreads having to make-calling the police to arrest their teenager. The grandmother of the 18 year old ACES High School student was reading his journal when she came across some distressing entries written by her grandson. These entries went into detail on what seemed to be a well thought out, calculated plan to create mass casualties at a local high school. In an attempt to save other students at the school as well as her own grandson who planned to take his life during the attack, the grandmother called 911 to report what she had found and turn her grandson in to the authorities.

Potential crisis averted

Photo by: Phing Chov

Authorities responded to the 911 call and after obtaining a search warrant, found a semiautomatic rifle and some inert grenades among the teenager’s possessions. Just one day prior to the deadly school shooting across the country in Florida, the 18 year old Washington teenager was apprehended by police while at school and his potential plan of shooting up his high school was foiled. 18 year old Joshua O’Connor was charged with attempted murder for his plan and preparations to carry out a deadly mass shooting and assault for fighting officers when handcuffed.

Legitimate threat or angry teen talk

While most of the Everett, Washington community is breathing a sigh of relief, others wonder if attempted murder charges will stick when no actual action towards violence was taken. O’Connor’s attorney has already noted that he should not be condemned for his personal writings in his private journal. While it could be true that he was merely venting to himself and never truly planned on carrying out the attack, the threat to human life seemed credible to authorities and O’Connor may face several years in prison.