"With limited exceptions not relevant here, even profanity is protected speech," explained a judge for the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. "Criticism of law enforcement officers, even with profanity, is protected speech."
Iowa is in the Eighth Circuit, which also includes North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Missouri and Arkansas. Therefore, this ruling applies directly to our courts.
Swearing at police is legal, even when it shocks small children
It was an Arkansas case from four years ago that led to the appeals court's reaffirmation on the subject of swearing at police officers. An Arkansas man was driving his Chevy Cobalt in Fort Smith, Arkansas, when he noticed a police officer ticketing the driver of a minivan. As he passed the trooper, he yelled an expletive.
According to the trooper, two children in the minivan put their hands over their mouths upon hearing the expletive. That was enough for the trooper to let the minivan go and focus his attention on the swearing man. The trooper chased the man down, pulled him over and arrested him for disorderly conduct. The trooper insisted that the expletive (the F-word) was so offensive that it justified the charges.
The Eighth Circuit sharply disagreed. Noting that Arkansas' disorderly conduct statute does not criminalize the content of speech but merely unreasonable or excessive noise, the appeals court ruled that the arrest was unjustified.
The man's "shout was unamplified and fleeting, no crowd gathered because of it, city traffic was not affected, no complaints were lodged by anyone in the community, business was not interrupted, nor were an officer's orders disobeyed," the court wrote.
Iowa's disorderly conduct statute is similar to that of Arkansas in that it does not criminalize offensive speech, but rather action that disrupts meetings, disturbs the peace of residences, causes panic or intentionally provokes violence.
In this case, the trooper was merely retaliating for being sworn at, and swearing at police officers is protected speech.
The driver, who was handcuffed, thrown in the back of a squad car, and held for eight hours in a filthy cell also had to hire a lawyer to get the spurious charges dropped. He is now seeking compensation for his treatment and losses through a federal civil rights lawsuit.