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Blog: Curse tree-trimmers at your own risk
First Amendment Watch

By David L. Hudson Jr.
First Amendment scholar

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Cursing at tree-trimmers and cops in Arkansas can land you a disorderly conduct conviction and a $100 fine. A state appeals court recently affirmed the conviction of a woman whose rants at trimmers and officers, the court said, amounted to unprotected fighting words, not protected speech.

In November 2006, two Paragould, Ark., police officers came to Connie Watkins' house in response to a call from the city light, water and cable company, which had hired a tree service to trim trees near electric lines. According to the two officers and the tree-trimmers, Watkins unleashed a torrent of profanity, including you “f----n tree trimmers you’re butchering my trees.” A trial court convicted her of disorderly conduct.

On appeal, the Arkansas appeals court on Jan. 27 affirmed the conviction in Watkins v. State, noting that Watkins “cursed the officers and tree-service employees” and “aggressively ran from person to person confronting them.” The owner of the tree-trimming company and one of the officers testified that they felt intimidated by Watkins.

Implicit in the 4-1 majority’s finding was that Watkins' speech and conduct crossed the line into “fighting words” — which the U.S. Supreme Court defined in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942)  as words that “by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.”

However, the high court years later in City of Houston v. Hill (1987)  wrote that “the First Amendment protects a significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge directed at police officers.” The lower courts are deeply divided over whether an individual’s profane outbursts are enough to constitute fighting words.

“The decision on the merits is simply appalling,” wrote Judge Josephine L. Hart in dissent. “Today’s opinion has criminalized ‘body language,’ uttering a sibilant expletive — the woman said ‘Shit!’ — and walking on a person’s own property when another party sets out orange cones marking an invisible line, even though that other party may be trespassing.”

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