Given the frequent reports of police brutality and misconduct in the U.S., particularly during the course of pullovers and arrests, Americans might be surprised to learn that they have a well-established right to be rude and even downright nasty to police officers. As The Atlantic’s CityLab column notes:
The courts have made it clear that individuals have a right to insult police officers. In 1987, the Supreme Court decided in City of Houston v. Hill that the First Amendment allows for a “significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge directed at police officers,” ruling against a Houston, Texas, ordinance making it “unlawful for any person to assault, strike or in any manner oppose, molest, abuse or interrupt any policeman in the execution of his duty, or any person summoned to aid in making an arrest.”
The case involved a gay rights activist who had been arrested numerous times for allegedly interfering with the police.
The First Amendment, the court noted, does not protect “fighting words,” statements “that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” But criticism, even when angrily voiced, is protected.
“The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest,” Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote for the majority, “is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state.”
That case built upon the 1974 decision in Lewis v. City of New Orleans, when the court ruled against an ordinance in that city making it “unlawful and a breach of the peace for any person wantonly to curse or revile or to use obscene or opprobrious language toward or with reference to any member of the city police while in the actual performance of his duty.”
The Lewis case involved a couple following behind a squad car that was taking their young son away. Another officer pulled them over and, after the woman got out, allegedly said, “you get in the car woman. Get your black ass in the god damned car or I will show you something.” The police officer testified that the woman said, “you god damn m.f. police – I am going to [the Superintendent of Police] about this.” The woman denied using any profanity. Either way, the court ruled that the ordinance under which she was arrested was so broad as to apply to “speech, although vulgar or offensive, that is protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.”
Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., in a concurring opinion cited by Justice Brennan in the 1987 case, wrote that police should be able to deal with more offensive language than a private citizen—meaning that verbal abuse had to reach a higher threshold to count as fighting words when they are directed at a cop.
That abuse can run quite high and stay within constitutional bounds, something that a cottage industry of people who make a point of testing cops on their First Amendment knowledge by giving them the middle finger has proven.