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EDITORIAL - Birds of prey: Even police have to treat insults as free speech

Written by Susan Mannella on .

It's official. Flipping a police officer "the bird" in Pittsburgh isn't a crime.

City police Sgt. Brian Elledge gave a citation to David Hackbart of Regent Square in 2006 after the driver made the rude gesture while trying to parallel park. In a recent ruling, U.S. District Court Judge David Cercone wrote that the motorist's constitutional right to free speech was violated.

In case after case, courts have sided with civilians who have sued officers for overstepping their police powers, after being insulted, by retaliating with tickets and fines. But police in the area have been slow to learn this.

Just as a citizen has a legal right to sling profanity at an officer, as long as it isn't followed by a verbal or physical threat, flipping an officer off is also protected speech.

Without question, the middle-finger salute is disrespectful when used against anyone. It's a terrible thing to do to a police officer, who is a symbol of authority. But no civilian is obliged to stand mute before a fellow citizen, even one in uniform. Citizens have free-speech rights that aren't abrogated just because a police officer feels disrespected.

Local officials -- and their employers -- have learned the hard way by being dragged into court. Sewickley Borough paid $9,000 to settle a case with an Ambridge man after he was cited for flipping off the fire chief. A flight attendant was awarded $7,500 after he fought a citation by a state trooper.

Judge Cercone's summary judgment gave the green light to Mr. Hackbart's broader suit, brought the Amerian Civil Liberties Union, against the city for failing to train its officers properly on the difference between law enforcement and retaliation. The ACLU found 188 similar citations written in Pittsburgh between March 2005 and October 2007, and it plans to use them to support its contention that city police do not know what constitutes retaliatory behavior.

Given the financial stakes involved when Pittsburgh or a nearby municipality loses a suit over an improper citation, a refresher course on the rights of ordinary citizens would seem to be a good investment.

 

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