Should a Person Be Jailed for Swearing in Court?

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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