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Sometimes I belittle police officers and make them really think about what they're doing.

I wonder sometimes: what if I really embarrass an officer with something I say, maybe in front of their friends, and they sue me for slander, or, as was mentioned by an answerer below, obstruction. Is that possible? How far can I safely go? That is to say, what are my legal boundaries vis-a-vis avoiding defamatory/obstructive litigation from an officer?

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Short Answer

"An obstruction conviction cannot stand when it is based on speech protected by an individual’s first amendment right to criticize on-duty police officers"

Source: Amicus Brief to Supreme Court of the State of Washington in State of Washington v. E.J.J.


I agree with @DaleM's answer. And I want to add to it by picking up on a nuance of the question I don't think DaleM's answer addresses specifically.


This question might be about obstruction, not slander.

Although the OP specifically mentions slander in their question, I think the context suggests the question actually concerns something different. Like perhaps, obstruction.

For example,

  • The question title specifically says, "curse [at]... an officer..."

and the OP characterizes their behavior as follows:

  • "I belittle them..."
  • "...and make them really think about what they're doing"
  • "...what if I really embarrass an officer with something I say..."

My read of the question suggests (to me) the OP is describing "name-calling" or "insulting" the police by saying things like:

"You're an X." (where X is an insulting term or label)

A case involving facts similar to what the OP describes has recently been tried, appealed and resolved by a state supreme court.


State supreme court ruled in favor of First Amendment protection.

The Washington state supreme court ruled as recently as June 25, 2015 on a case that dealt with this issue. The Seattle Times reports here that the Washington State Supreme Court has ruled in the case of State of Washington v. E.J.J.:

"First Amendment protects profanity against police"

A teenage boy convicted of obstruction after yelling and cursing at three Seattle police officers while they were investigating a disturbance at his house had a First Amendment right to behave the way he did, the Washington Supreme Court said in an opinion Thursday.

Citizens who curse at police and call them abusive names while they’re investigating a crime are protected from arrest by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a case out of Seattle.


Disclaimer

I am not an attorney. I am not your attorney. This is not legal advice. So don't follow it. If you need legal help, hire a real lawyer. Never take legal advice from strangers on the internet. Treat this response and all responses on this site just like you would drunks at a party who got all their legal information from watching episodes of The Practice, Boston Legal and Ally McBeal — but yet have lots of opinions to share on legal questions nevertheless.

  • I would never say "pig." – Cvpkryuq Sep 8 '15 at 16:21
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    @Cvpkryuq: If you can give an example of something you might say, I would be happy to edit my answer accordingly. – Mowzer Sep 8 '15 at 16:24
  • It's more like forthright speak, you know? Tough talk that's constructive. Blunt constructive criticism that hones their sense of what it means to be a real man doing a real job that actually has value. – Cvpkryuq Sep 8 '15 at 16:53
  • @Cvpkryuq: I deleted reference to "pig" since you clarified that's not part of your question. Thanks. – Mowzer Sep 8 '15 at 17:48
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You say "morally in the wrong" as if there was only one moral code on Earth and this is simply not true. For example, there are moral codes where eating pork is wrong and others where it is not. This site concerns itself with whether a person is legally in the wrong - there are other Stack Exchange sites that concern themselves with moral questions.

Notwithstanding ...

The elements of a defamation suit; whether slander or libel, are:

  1. A defamatory statement;

  2. Published to a third party;

  3. Which the speaker knew or should have known was false;

  4. That causes injury to the subject of the communication.

If you confine your statements so that they:

  1. Do not damage the officer's good reputation; or

  2. Are not made to a third party; or

  3. Are factual.

then you cannot be (successfully) sued.

  • You do not believe in the existence of a universally understood just custom shared across all of humanity? – Cvpkryuq Sep 8 '15 at 2:23
  • @Cvpkryuq: Stack Exchange Q&A is not designed for broad discussion. However, you can engage in off-topic discussions in the chat rooms. Since your comment is off-topic it will be deleted shortly, unless you can somehow explain how it is relevant to the question of law you raised, or the applicability of this answer to that question. Let me reiterate my strong suggestion that you familiarize yourself with Stack Exchange in order to avoid future confusion or aggravation. – feetwet Sep 8 '15 at 2:28
  • Vis-a-vis my comment above, and the content which was edited out of the original question where I stated that police officers can be conceited, I ask the following: Is it not customary for a reasonable and actionable person to right arrogance in its place? To this end, oughtn't we know the legal breadth of our speech rights in an attempt to hone the moral fabric of our just customs? – Cvpkryuq Sep 8 '15 at 2:36
  • @Cvpkryuq: It sounds like you might have intended to ask a different question. I can't tell if it's a legal question. Freedom-of-speech is a pretty well-defined right in the U.S., and this appears to answer your question regarding its legal limits. There are also a number of good questions here about interaction with police. But if this is a political question it belongs on Politics. Philosophical questions have a place at Philosophy. – feetwet Sep 8 '15 at 2:46
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    @ Dale M... I agree re the morality question. A moral (categorical) imperative (Kant) is a philosophical ideology, not a legal question. Further, the questions re defamation and inciting a police officer are both already discussed in some depth on this site. – gracey209 Sep 8 '15 at 5:11

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