Being A Jerk Isn't Illegal

by digby

Here's a heartening little story for the day before Thanksgiving:

The City of Pittsburgh has agreed to pay $50,000 to a man who sued after being issued a disorderly conduct citation for gesturing offensively at a police officer.

The settlement, in which the city also agreed to retrain its officers in the limits of disorderly conduct law, was reached with Dave Hackbart, 35, after research undertaken by his lawyers found that police citations for swearing or offensive gestures were common here.

From March 2005 to July 2009, the research found, Pittsburgh officers cited 198 people for disorderly conduct on the basis of that sort of behavior, even though the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has consistently found such citations unlawful on free speech grounds.

“Hopefully we’ll send a message to other police officers across the state, where this is a consistent problem, that this is not legal,” said Sara J. Rose, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which helped represent Mr. Hackbart in a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city.

Now, it is very, very unwise to insult the police. You are looking for trouble and they may very well be motivated to find some for you. But the insult itself is not illegal in this country --- citizens of a free country are not required by law to automatically treat government officials with deference and respect --- and the culture that says they are is an authoritarian one.

It's very telling that these officers have to be repeatedly trained to understand this. They have tough jobs, and are given all sorts of special privileges and powers because of it. But they should not be under the illusion that their powers and privileges extend to requiring that citizens treat them politely.

Evidently, many of them are, however:

Gay attorney Pepin Tuma was pushed, called a "faggot," and arrested in Washington, D.C., Sunday because he made fun of the police.

Tuma was with two friends, also attorneys, discussing the recent arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. when he said aloud "I hate the police."

A police officer then charged "40 to 50 feet" toward the men and pushed him against a transformer box, Tuma told the Washington Blade . "As Officer [J.] Culp moved me toward a police cruiser, he told me to just 'shut up, faggot,'" he said.

One witness, D.C. attorney Luke Platzer, was reportedly asked by an officer to give a statement that Tuma was resisting arrest in a disorderly way. He refused, saying he saw no physical resistance by Tuma.

It's also this mentality that leads to so many of these unnecessary tasing incidents --- the police feel insulted or get impatient with someone who is arguing with them and shoot them full of electricity to make it stop. They don't seem to understand that the power of the law does not extend to protecting their sensibilities and ego.

It's a terribly difficult job, I get that, and often they have nothing but bad choices in volatile situations. But police officers have a lot of discretionary power and having a deep and fundamental understanding of their role in a free society is absolutely necessary in order for them to use it wisely. After the vast expansion of the police state in the last decade, there are an awful lot more prisons and police agencies in this country, many of them with overlapping jurisdictions and incentives (and permission) to get tough. It's more important than ever to make this stuff very clear.