Blue language: Free speech doesn't mean much to city police

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You don't have to be the chief justice of the Supreme Court to know that profanity directed at police officers is protected under the First Amendment.

Unfortunately, Pittsburgh police need a refresher course on First Amendment guarantees as evidenced by 188 disorderly conduct citations issued over 20 months for swearing and making obscene gestures.

After filing a Right to Know request in preparation for a lawsuit, the local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union uncovered a pattern of willful disregard for free speech by the Pittsburgh police.

In one case, a citation for directing abusive language toward an officer was issued to the passenger, not the driver, of a car that had been pulled over by police.

In another, the officer wrote that the citation was given to a woman for "swearing profanities to a companion in front of the Girl Scouts." If such a short-sighted reaction to obnoxious speech sounds like an unconstitutional exercise of police powers, well, it is.

The Girl Scouts learned nothing from witnessing that exercise of arbitrary police power except contempt for the law. Six years ago, Pittsburgh had to pay a man $3,000 for malicious prosecution. You'd think a jury verdict would have put an end to this nonsense forever.

Perhaps the fact that the police were not forthcoming about the number of such tickets its officers issued is an indication that the city knows what a poorly trained force it has on its hands. When attorneys for a man who sued city police, claiming he was improperly cited based on a profane gesture, asked how many other similar citations had been written, the city did not provide any. We now know the answer should have been 187.

Each of the citations represents an overreaction and an abuse of police authority. Officers need to be trained on how to let the First Amendment run its course.


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