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Attorney: Arrest over sign in Valdosta protest was unconstitutional

Updated: Jun. 8, 2020 at 5:56 PM EDT
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VALDOSTA, Ga. (WALB) - After last week’s arrest during a Valdosta protest, complaints were made that it violates first amendment free speech rights. On Monday, a lawyer told WALB it was unconstitutional.

“It’s long been established since 1971, actually by the Supreme Court, that profanity like bad words on a sign, particularly in the context of a political protest, it is constitutionally protected speech, one of the first amendments,” said Sarah Brewerton-Palmer, a lawyer with Caplan Cobb.

That 1971 case she’s referring to is Cohen vs. California. A man expressed his opposition to the Vietnam war. He wore a jacket with the words " F the draft. Stop the war." The man was charged under a California Statute that prohibits “maliciously and willfully disturbing the peace or quiet of any neighborhood or person by offensive conduct.”

The Court of Appeals said that offensive conduct had a tendency to provoke others to acts of violence and disturb the peace. The Supreme Court decided, even though the words were provocative, it was not directed towards anyone. They determined there was no evidence it provoked anyone into some kind of physical action.

A judge wrote “one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric."

In Thursday’s Valdosta case, the sign had the Lowndes County’s sheriff’s name on it. Palmer told WALB that’s another issue.

“That actually creates another layer of first amendment problems, even if a law is constitutional, you can’t enforce it based on what somebody is saying, so if the actual context of the speech, what was written on that sign itself is what caused the arrest to take place, that’s another layer of problems under the first amendment. You are not allowed to discriminate based on what someone is saying. Particularly in the context of a political protest,” said Palmer.

Georgia law states that the use of obscene and vulgar or profane language in the presence of those 14 years or under is not permitted. Anyone who commits this offense can be charged with a misdemeanor.

Palmer said the definition of obscenity is something more of a sexual nature, like pornography. She said the sign does not equate to that.

“It sounds like the statue is not necessarily the problem. It’s the way it’s being enforced. I don’t think the sign falls under the definition of obscenity and probably it wasn’t the way that statue was meant to be used,” said Palmer.

Under the U.S. Constitution, curse words on a sign at a protest fully written out or abbreviated, is legal and protected under the first amendment as long as it does not incite violence.

The constitution applies to any Georgia state law, if it’s being forced unconstitutionally.

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