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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Supreme Court Upholds Right To Be Asshole On Road

Posted by Matt Davis on Thu, Aug 14, 2008 at 5:08 PM

Yesterday it was ninja swords in the appeals court. Today it's your constitutional right to be a complete asshole, drawing from the example of the following case which took place in 2006, described in today's supreme court opinion:

Defendant found himself stuck in rush hour traffic near a car that was occupied by two women, one white and one black. The car had a rainbow decal on the rear, which caused defendant to assume that the women were lesbians. The women's car pulled in front of defendant's pickup truck as the lanes narrowed from two to one. Defendant became angry and began "tailgating" the women and, using some kind of sound amplification system, shouted various obscene and racist epithets at the women, accompanied by extremely rude gestures. Defendant's conduct drew the attention of other drivers and lasted for about five minutes as the cars inched through stop-and-go traffic. Eventually, one of the women got out of the car to confront defendant. Defendant did not leave his pickup, but he and the woman engaged in a heated verbal exchange. Defendant did not verbally threaten the woman with violence and no actual violence took place, but the woman later testified that she believed that defendant was trying to incite her to violence. She ultimately returned to her car when her companion intervened and told her that a person in the bed of the pickup was swinging a skateboard in a menacing way.(2) The two women then drove away and called the police.
The defendant was convicted on two counts of harassment under Oregon harassment law (ORS 166.065(1)(a)(B)). The court of appeals agreed, saying Oregon's harassment law is not in conflict with the constitutional right to free speech, especially given that the women feared the man was trying to provoke them to violence. But the supreme court disagrees:
Harassment and annoyance are among common reactions to seeing or hearing gestures or words that one finds unpleasant. Words or gestures that cause only that kind of reaction, however, cannot be prohibited in a free society, even if the words or gestures occur publicly and are insulting, abusive, or both. Stated another way, ORS 166.065(1)(a)(B) constitutionally may protect a hearer or viewer from exposure to a reasonable fear of immediate harm due to certain types of expression, but it cannot criminally punish all harassing or annoying expression.
Something to think about on the ride home.

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