Freedom of Speech or Criminal Harassment?

Freedom of Speech or Criminal Harassment? by Saul Bienenfeld

In 2012, a motorist named William Barboza was issued a speeding ticket in Liberty, Upstate New York and wrote on the return payment form “fuck your shitty town bitches.” He also crossed out the name of the town “Liberty” and instead wrote the word “tyranny.”

When the clerk opened the payment form, she became very upset and told the town judge about it. The judge called the man to appear in court, and the district attorney’s office found out about the matter and decided to have Barboza arrested as well. He was charged with aggravated harassment under the rationale that the messages he wrote were threatening. The criminal case was eventually dismissed because the language used by Barboza was not deemed to have actually threatened anyone.

Then Barboza decided to sue the district attorney responsible personally under the claim that he was wrongfully arrested for using his First Amendment right to free speech. The district attorney countered that he had absolute immunity for suits such as these. This case went to federal court, and Judge Cathy Seibel ruled in Barboza’s favor, agreeing that his rights were violated when he was arrested for aggravated harassment and that he may indeed sue the district attorney.

Police officers, town clerks and prosecutors all need to be trained to know the difference between vulgar language and actual threatening or menacing language, and what is and is not protected by the First Amendment.

So writing “fuck your shitty town bitches” is not considered threatening enough to rise to the level of harassment. It is certainly vulgar, but it does not convey a message of imminent physical threat. There have been instances in which people mail in fines containing blood, feces or bodily fluids; these can be dangerous and cause disease. This is the difference between what is constitutionally protected – writing of vulgar messages, and what is not protected – the adding of a potentially dangerous foreign substance.

Keep in mind this distinction if you plan to say or write something insulting to law enforcement – cases have shown that simply putting your middle finger up to a police officer is in fact considered protected freedom of expression.

It seems that if the only things being harmed are the feelings of the officer or government official, vulgar conduct is permissible. Conduct which threatens physical harm is not.

Saul Bienenfeld, Criminal Defense Attorney

Saul Bienenfeld P.C.
450 Seventh Ave.
Suite 1408
New York, NY 10123
212-363-7701
sbienenfeld.com

About Saul Bienenfeld
Former Assistant District Attorney For The Special Narcotics Bureau, with Over 25 Years Experience As A Successful Criminal Defense Attorney in New York. When you're in trouble, you better call Saul! The Law Offices of Saul Bienenfeld P.C. is dedicated to helping clients receive justice. As your personal law firm, we take the time necessary to fully understand your situation, ensuring that all of your legal needs are met. Your peace of mind is important to us, which is why we are always available to assist you. As a law firm designed specifically for the people, the Law Offices of Saul Bienenfeld P.C. is always ready to help out his fellow New Yorkers. We take each of our cases to heart and work as a team for you.

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