The First Amendment to the United States Constitution does not protect all speech. But, in what is good news for Connecticut man, it does protect a citizen’s right to scrawl “F@*! YOUR SH!TTY TOWN BITCHES” on a citation in protest of a speeding ticket. Yesterday, New York Federal Judge Cathy Seibel ruled that the District Attorney for the town of Liberty in upstate New York violated William Barboza’s civil rights after the District Attorney ordered Barboza arrested and prosecuted for using obscenities in protesting a traffic ticket.
On May 4, 2012, William Barboza was driving through the town of Liberty in upstate New York. He was pulled over and given a ticket for speeding. Barboza was clearly unhappy about the ticket. Although he decided to pay the fine, on the payment form he submitted with his check Barboza wrote “F@*! YOUR SH!TTY TOWN BITCHES” (except his version was uncensored). Barboza also crossed out the word “Liberty” from the phrase “Liberty Town Courthouse” and hand wrote “Tyranny” in its place.
The authorities in Liberty were not too pleased with Mr. Barboza. His payment was rejected and he was ordered to appear in court. When Mr. Barboza appeared before a local Liberty judge he was lectured on the use of his foul language and eventually arrested and charged with “aggravated harassment.” As it turns out, Liberty’s District Attorney Robert Zangla ordered Barboza’s arrest.
About a year after his arrest, the criminal charges against Barboza were dropped. The judge dismissing the case against Barboza wrote that “No citation is necessary for this Court to determine that the language under the circumstances here, offensive as it is, is protected.”
Barboza was not content to let matters stand and he filed a civil lawsuit in federal court against both the town of Liberty and Robert Zangla for violating his Constitutional rights under the color of state law.
Yesterday, Judge Seibel of the Southern District of New York ruled that Zangla is liable for damages for impinging upon Barboza’s “clearly protected rights” under the First Amendment. Judge Seibel rejected the notion that Barboza’s “speech” violated New York’s aggravated harassment law, determining that his choice of words, though “crude and offensive,” did not convey any imminent threat of harm. As for the town of Liberty, it would have to stand trial on Mr. Barboza’s claim that it failed to train its police officers on rights afforded by the First Amendment.
As noted by Judge Seibel, Mr. Barboza’s choice of words was clearly meant to be offensive and insulting. That said, if the First Amendment provides any protection at all, it must protect a citizen’s right to protest and criticize the actions of his government. Otherwise, what is the point? Insulting a town in response to a speeding ticket may be immature, but it is a form of protest and just the sort of speech the First Amendment was intended to protect.