Costly bird: City police learn the high price of free speech

Written by Susan Mannella on .

The folks at the American Civil Liberties Union were grateful on Turkey Day because of resolution of a case involving a different kind of bird. As in flipping the bird, the expression used to describe an obscene gesture that -- while certainly bad manners -- is free speech under the First Amendment.

In a settlement based on a federal lawsuit filed by a man who was cited for giving a middle finger to a police officer, the city of Pittsburgh agreed to pay $50,000 and train its officers to properly distinguish between disorderly conduct and unseemly behavior. This is long-settled law, and federal courts have ruled consistently that the gesture has the protections of speech. Like it or not, violating a standard of etiquette is not against the law.

Does David Hackbart, the paralegal involved in the 2006 incident in Squirrel Hill, deserve $10,000 (the rest of the settlement goes to the ACLU) for his troubles? That seems excessive. But it may be that having to pay a large sum of cash is the only way to bring the point home to the police bureau. The ACLU determined that, in a 20-month period, Pittsburgh officers filed 188 disorderly conduct citations for swearing or making obscene gestures, so Mr. Hackbart's treatment was no isolated incident.

Now, under terms of the settlement, police supervisors will review citations to make sure individuals are not being cited improperly. Failing to do so already has cost the city too much money. Future legal violations could be even more expensive, so it is the city and its police force that must take a deep breath, step back and avoid overreacting even when citizens don't extend officers that same courtesy.


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