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.

Man Tired of Being Single – Makes Terrorist Threats While Visiting Utah

A Colorado man visiting Utah was tired of being single and used social media to make terrorist threats against girls.

Loveless and lawless

Terrorist threats

Photo by: Pietro Zanarini

27 year old Christopher Wayne Cleary of Denver, Colorado was visiting Provo, Utah when he posted on Facebook his woes regarding his lack of a romantic life. In the midst of his personal oversharing, he also made terrorist threats against girls by threatening to cause a mass shooting and kill “as many girls as I see.” Alert members of the online community contacted Denver police who then tracked Cleary down to his location in Provo. Officers in police were able to apprehend Cleary peacefully where he was then questioned before being booked into the Utah County jail for making the terrorist threats.

Making terrorist threats

Cleary is facing charges of a probation violation as well as felony charges for making terrorist threats. Utah Code 76-5-107.3 states “A person commits [terrorist threats] if the person threatens to commit any offense involving bodily injury, death, or substantial property damage, and:

• Threatens the use of a weapon of mass destruction . . . ; or
• Threatens the use of a hoax weapon of mass destruction . . . ; [both second degree felonies] or
• Acts with intent to:
o Intimidate or coerce a civilian population or to influence or affect the conduct of a government or a unit of government [a second degree felony];
o 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 [a third degree felony] ; or
o 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 [a class B misdemeanor].”

That section goes on to note that “A threat under this section may be express[ed] or implied.”

Social media oversharing

Law enforcement officers did not report finding any weapons on Cleary and when they found him he was merely sitting at a McDonalds, not taking actions to carry out his threat. Cleary was compliant with police and when asked, he didn’t deny making the terrorist threats. According to Cleary, he posted the threat on Facebook when he was distraught and quickly took it down following the backlash from other Facebook users. While it may be seen as awkward and even inappropriate, many social media users use their posting rights to “vent” when they are upset. Some may overshare by openly saying what is on their mind. Others might participate in “Vague-booking” or posting vague comments to get the attention of someone specific or anyone who will ask follow-up questions. However they go about it, often these “venting” posts are taking down once the person has calmed down and realized they have probably posted a little bit too much personal information for every single one of the Facebook friends to see.

Crossing the criminal line

While the awkward venting posts may not result in much more than embarrassment, using the social media resource to threaten harm on a single individual or a group of people can quickly lead to criminal charges even if the person never had any intention of carrying out their threat. Utah Code 76-5-107.3 defined above warns that “it is not a defense . . . that the person did not attempt to carry out or was incapable of carrying out the threat.” Anyone using their accounts for venting are warned to always keep their posts within legal boundaries. Those facing criminal charges for comments or posts they made to any social media accounts including terrorist threats are encouraged to immediately seek legal counsel from a reputable attorney.