Court: ‘Disorderly conduct’ protected by First Amendment

Free speech trumps disorderly conduct. That’s the bottom line of a case from the Minnesota Court of Appeals today which has ruled that two animal rights protesters had every right to chant loudly and even threaten violence against the mother of a fur store owner. The Appeals Court overturned the jury convictions of two men.

In its order today, the court might have also set a record for the most use of asterisks in a decision. In a 1978 case, the court said, “the supreme court held that a retreating 14-year old girl’s statement to police, f**k you pigs,” did not constitute fighting words because she directed it at two police officers sitting in a squad car located 15 to 30 feet away. The court noted that there was no reasonable likelihood that the statement would ‘tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace of to provoke violent reaction by an ordinary reasonable person.’”

Isaac Peter, 19, and Michael Lawson, 21, were arrested on disorderly conduct charges in March 2010, after a business owner told police the two yelled that “they knew where he lived; they knew where his elderly mother lived; and they knew his vehicle license plate number,” according to today’s court ruling.

The court said someone’s “conduct” can’t be separated from the “political speech,” which is protected by the First Amendment, also citing a case of a man who rode a horse through a gay pride festival in Minneapolis while shouting anti-gay epithets; and a group of people dressed as zombies protesting consumerism in the city (they were cited because they scared a girl who thought they were really zombies).

Neither of those cases constituted “fighting words,” which is the only condition under which someone’s speech isn’t protected by the First Amendment, the court indicated.

The Appeals Court also said that Minneapolis’ disorderly conduct ordinance “is in danger of being struck down unless it is restricted to prohibiting only fighting words and conduct that is not inextricably linked to protected speech.”

Here’s the full opinion.