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F-bombs In Court

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When a judge makes a ruling you don't like, the usual response is a motion to reconsider, an appeal, or a writ petition.  Saying "Tell Judge Currie get the f--- off all my cases" is contraindicated.  That was the course chosen by pro se civil litigant Robert Peoples in a federal court in South Carolina.  Mike Scarcella has this story for the NLJ (free registration required).

This resulted in a trial for criminal contempt at which Peoples (no longer pro se) was convicted.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed.

Peoples has filed a certiorari petition in the Supreme Court, Peoples v. United States, No. 12-7544.  Along with the law of contempt, the SC FedPD makes a First Amendment argument, citing Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 26 (1971), the notorious "F___ the Draft" jacket-in-the-courtroom case.  "If Cohen is correct and the mere use of such a profane word cannot be made a crime, it logically follows that its use may not constitute the reason for criminal contempt."

That "if" would be a good issue for the Court to take up.  As much as I admire Justice Harlan for his many fine opinions, I think he got it wrong on that one.  Freedom of speech does not need to include the freedom to say anything anywhere.  Society can and should insist on a basic level of decorum in its government proceedings.  Cohen et al. can take their protests outside.

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In an era where government officials threatened to prosecute people for "libel" against politicians (see St. Louis officials making those threats in 2008 during the campaign), where Cabinet members threaten healthcare companies for their "political" communications to customers, where people argue for the criminal punishment of those who "insult" Muhammed, I think that judges can take someone wearing a "F___ the draft" jacket. Further, I am not sure that even dropping an f-bomb in court should subject one to criminal prosecution---the judge could simply have the offender removed from court--problem solved sans criminal contempt. (By the way, I might move off that view if judges could be prosecuted for taunting litigants--it happens--or being abusive to a captive audience.)

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