Should a Person Be Jailed for Swearing in Court?

A plaintiff who spoke harshly about a judge was slapped with a four-month sentence

  • Share
  • Read Later
Chris Ryan / Getty Images

Last week, a powerful federal court upheld a four-month prison sentence for a South Carolina man who did nothing more than use the F word — and a few other choice expletives — about a federal judge who had thrown out his case.

Robert Peoples, a former inmate, had sued South Carolina prison officials over what he alleged were unconstitutional conditions. When the trial was beginning, he showed up late several times — once because of a flat tire — and acted in ways that Judge Cameron McGowan Currie considered disrespectful. When he arrived 15 minutes late on another occasion, the judge dismissed his suit.

After the judge left the courtroom Peoples told a clerk, “Tell Judge Currie get the f— off all my cases.” The clerk told Judge Currie, who began the process of holding Peoples in criminal contempt. She handed the case off to another federal judge, who convicted Peoples and sentenced him to four months in prison.

(MORE: Cohen: Pulpit Freedom: Should Churches Endorse Political Candidates?)

Not surprisingly, Peoples challenged his conviction, arguing that it did not “obstruct the administration of justice” — something the government must prove in a contempt case. It was a short outburst with a fleeting expletive. Peoples did not interrupt the court proceeding — which was over. He did not threaten or harass the judge — who was gone.

But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, based in Richmond, Va., affirmed Peoples’ conviction, choosing to view his words not as the frustration of a member of the public who felt the judicial system had let him down but rather as a threat to “judicial authority.” How, exactly, did Peoples’ foul language obstruct justice? Judicial employees had to “cease their regular duties and tend” to him, and court personnel had to spend time participating in an investigation of the outburst.

The appeals court’s ruling is feeble stuff. If getting judicial employees to stop what they are doing and attend to you is obstruction of justice, insistently asking where the nearest bathroom is could be punishable by four months in prison. Making it illegal to do something that court personnel must take the time to investigate is logically circular: if the court system did not decide that what Peoples did was a crime, it would not have had to be investigated.

(MORE: Cohen: A Back-to-School Fight over the Right to Classroom Prayer)

This might seem like a small case. Who cares if a foul-mouthed ex-con cools off in prison for four months? But it gets at something large. Judges are already walled off from the public in all sorts of ways. They sit on elevated benches, they wear robes, they are addressed as “Your Honor,” and their work cannot in many cases be televised or photographed. This special status widens the gulf between judges and the people whose cases they judge.

Insulating judges from criticism takes this elevation too far. In monarchies, lèse majesté laws historically made it a crime to violate the dignity of the king or queen. Lèse majesté lives on in some countries. Earlier this year in Thailand, a man was sentenced to 20 years in prison for sending insulting text messages about the royal family. The punishment of Peoples for speaking harshly about a judge is akin to this clearly undemocratic example.

(MORE: Cohen: A New First Amendment Right: Videotaping the Police)

The F word is not so powerful that it can bring a mighty justice system to a standstill. The Supreme Court considered a similar issue in 1971, in a case involving a man who was sentenced to 30 days in jail for the “offensive conduct” of wearing a jacket bearing the words “F— the Draft” in the Los Angeles County Courthouse, and made clear that the words on the jacket were protected by the First Amendment. “One of the prerogatives of American citizenship is the right to criticize public men and measures — and that means not only informed and responsible criticism, but the freedom to speak foolishly and without moderation,” the court said, quoting Justice Felix Frankfurter.

We can have a system in which people are afraid to talk harshly about judges out of fear that they will be thrown in jail — or we can have a democracy. Peoples should take last week’s misguided ruling to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court should reverse his conviction — and uphold the right of all of us to criticize courts and judges “without moderation.”

MORE: Cohen: Should the FBI Be Allowed to Wiretap Facebook?

19 comments
JohnDavidDeatherage
JohnDavidDeatherage

What recourse does the accused have in contempt citation?  The Judge acts as prosecutor, Judge and jury.  Such power should be exercised rarely and with discretion.  There should be an appeals process to hold Judges accountable.....

PatElgee
PatElgee

People should be respectful of the courts, but keep in mind that all rulings are not just.

There are lawyer games and judges are lawyers too. 

Bad decisions can be appealed, if you have the money, but decisions are seldom overturned.\

redleg
redleg

this man is a law professor?  sad really.  why even have courts then, if these imbeciles can use them as their personal barroom or street level filth centers?  talk about feeble.  this little man in his ivory tower pecks away at the keyboard while REAL lawyers and judges work the courtrooms day in and day out, dealing with all sorts of trauma, drama, intensity of emotion and real life problems.  i would LOVE to know what this so called professor would do if  student got up and yelled "F OFF!" to him.  

TownKryer
TownKryer

What is wrong with holding people in contemp. What is wrong with the way things are run now? Other questions are being asked like do we still need a jury for trial HUH??? do not pick away at our constitution by using the sleeping zombies.

MuhammadKhizirFarooqi
MuhammadKhizirFarooqi

Judges are required to use their mind in giving judgements. If any one  feels that he has not been truly heard or the judgement is biased , he is free to go in appeal to higher court .A biased judge is also liable  to be removed from the bench by due process of law. But any way judges can not be allowed to be rebuked or scandalized. The freedom of expression does mean that it shoud be used to obtain the judgement in one's favor, .

Don
Don

Thank you for writing an article about something many would probably consider to be a non-issue.  While the man lacks some basic sense--many do--I find it absurd how easily anyone could be stripped of their freedom.  Whether it's judges, attorneys, or police, there is far too little oversight and no equitable repercussions for those who abuse the system.

abelinone
abelinone

And does the court not realize that they just impugned their so called authority.

sebastionkain
sebastionkain

This is misuse of authority and abuse of power.  This judge needs to be put under review, and this case needs to be taken to the supreme court.  Oh wait, will I get thrown in prison for saying that?  In a system where we are not free to express our dissatisfaction to our "betters", we are no longer in a constitutional republic.  There was no law broken here by the man, but several broken by the court.  However, it will probably go nowhere because this man is a criminal.  It will be brushed off and under the rug.  Nothing will happen to this "judge" who abuses her authority.  What will keep it from further growing, and happening to you?

bojimbo26
bojimbo26

' judicial authority ' , he was swearing at the judge not the judicial system . Should not be in prison .

danielkoeker
danielkoeker

Four months for swearing? Goodness. These judges must have to live in bubbles in order to survive with skin this thin. I hate to think how much time he would have gotten for saying "meanie doodiehead." Might have to get the electric chair for that one, folks.

OneWorld
OneWorld

@redleg Um, you do realize most law professors, like most medical professors, do practice in their relative fields while teaching. And actually, Cohen was an education-reform lawyer, and a lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. That's pretty traumatic, dramatic, and he definitely dealt with intensity of emotion and real life problems. SO, why don't YOU get off your ivory tower, and spend your time benefiting society rather than belittling a successful and admirable lawyer, author, and law professor who has already fought for peoples' rights.

....
....

@redleg Thats not what happened. The word was not used in the presence of the Judge but an offhand remark made to a clerk...when the Judge found out he was mad someone had the nerve to back talk him so he trumped up a contempt charge and sentenced the man to 4 months in jail. This is clearly an abuse of power and scary.

Redleg, part of being American is having freedom of speech...not living in an upper middle class bubble world where everyone is Republican and adpots 1950's southern manners in the presence of "superiors". You are a sheeple through and through.

redleg
redleg

@Don ya let's allow the savages to take over one of the last places on this earth where there is a hint of decorum.  sounds like a fool who belongs in jail to me. you're not smart

redleg
redleg

@OneWorld @redleg is that a joke? most law professors have not picked up a civil procedure rulebook in decades, unless to teach it.  the VAST MAJORITY of them don't practice and never again wull.

redleg
redleg

@LeeGunn @redleg you are an embarrassment to America.  If someone wants to act that way in a public courtroom, he SHOULD be placed in jail.  It's a disgraceful and childlike act and i can guarantee you this fool is an anti-social jerk who loses all his cases. he thinks he can make it into his pigpen? sorry not happening. this isn't even a story.  EVERY person acting this way would get the same treatment. this silly "professor" is just trying to get some clicks by making something not unusual at all sound "controversial"

Don
Don

What this individual did may have warranted punishment, in the form of a fine.  Not four months of his life never to be regained.  If I were to judge you as recklessly as you have done me, I'd say you ought to have some incarceration time under your belt for the F-bombs you've likely dropped in your time to those that didn't deserve it.  Assuming we could get a judge as unhinged by language as the one involved in this case.