05 December 2017

Verbally Attacking a Store Clerk? Still not fighting words

As students in my U.S. Constitutional Law courses learn, the second step of the free speech analysis involves determining whether the speech being restricted by the government has been deemed as "non-speech" by the courts. The non-speech categories are few and seldom used by courts asked to determine the validity of a speech restriction. The Hartford Courant recently ran a piece that illustrates just how seldom these non-speech categories are applied.

At issue was "a shocking tirade" leveled at a store employee by a customer who "became infuriated when told that the customer service desk had closed and she could not collect a Western Union money order." The customer was subsequently arrested and charged with a breach of the peach, for which she was convicted by a jury. On appeal the state tried to convince the Connecticut Supreme Court that the customer's outburst amounted to so-called fighting words, which is one of the non-speech categories recognized by courts. As the Courant reports:
Writing for the majority in July, Justice Andrew McDonald said courts must consider the context of verbal confrontations before labeling speech as fighting words. He said the manager of a 65,000-square-foot grocery store should, through training or experience, be able to act with restraint in the face of verbal assaults, in much the same fashion as police officers.
In short, the Connecticut Supreme Court held that the conviction was invalid because even this tirade is protected speech! The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately refused to hear an appeal of this decision, leaving in place the ruling that not even an in-your-face, profanity laden tirade qualifies as "fighting words." Yet more proof that the fight words exception has no practical application.