Is It Illegal To Call a Police Officer Names?

It’s not illegal, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea. A story by The Marshall Project goes over several cases where appellate courts have held that the First Amendment protects people from being convicted for calling the police the following names:

The Muttonhead opinion isn’t online for free, which is unfortunate. It’s Ruthenbeck v. First Criminal Judicial Court of Bergen Cty., 7 NJ Misc. 969, 1929 if you have WestLaw.

The issue in these cases is whether or not the arrested person’s conduct is protected by the First Amendment. In City of Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a person cannot be arrested for telling an officer to “pick on somebody their own size.”

In its opinion, the Court held that “The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state.” Keep in mind, however, that mere insults can escalate to something more serious when the person insulting the police officer acts in a physically threatening way or makes physical contact with the officer.

Generally, when someone in Florida is arrested for simply insulting a police officer they get charged under either the “Resisting Officer Without Violence” or the “Disorderly Conduct” statute. But Florida’s Courts have held that these statutes cannot be used to convict based on  mere words, so long as the defendant did not use “fighting words.”

For example – in T.S.S v. State, the Second District Court of Appeal threw out a conviction of a juvenile for disorderly conduct because a police officer testified that the juvenile continued to “hoot and holler and carry on and scream at us and of course make fun of the police” during the officer’s investigation of a loud party.

A note: Florida’s courts are wishy-washy on what actually qualifies as “fighting words” under these statutes (see White v. State, 330 So.2d 3, Fla. 1976 an the dissent in Gold v. City of Miami, 138 F.3d 886, 11th Cir. 1998). You should also read this piece by Ken White on the context behind the classic “fire in a crowded theater” argument that people inevitably trot out  in a discussion about free speech.

So yes, you can insult police officers. But just because you can doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, and doesn’t mean that they won’t arrest you.