Civil Liberties

Protected Profanity


"FUCK YOUR SHITTY TOWN BITCHES," Willian Barboza wrote across the payment form he mailed to the town of Liberty, New York, after receiving a speeding ticket in 2012. For good measure, the 21-year-old Connecticut resident also crossed out Liberty and replaced it with "TYRANNY."

Five months later, as if to confirm that description, local police arrested Barboza for "aggravated harassment in the second degree"—a charge that was ultimately dismissed by a municipal judge who commented that "no citation is necessary for this Court to determine that the language under the circumstances here, offensive as it is, is protected" by the First Amendment. Last September a federal judge agreed, allowing Barboza's lawsuit against the town and a local prosecutor to proceed.

"Plaintiff's arrest violated his clearly established constitutional right to engage in and be free from arrests because of protected speech," said U.S. District Judge Cathy Seibel, who cited a 2003 case in which the New York Court of Appeals rejected aggravated harassment charges against a woman who left "crude and offensive" messages on a parking violations bureau's answering machine. "That decision is on all fours with this case," Seibel said. "It dealt with offensive language used to express to government employees dissatisfaction with government action."