In South Carolina, What You Say During Protests Could Land You in Jail
In June 2020, Brittany Martin attended a Black Lives Matter protest in Sumter, South Carolina. There, she used strong language when speaking to police officers. “Some of us gon’ be hurting. And some of y’all gon’ be hurting,” she said. “We ready to die for this. We tired of it. You better be ready to die for the blue. I’m ready to die for the black.”
While Martin did not physically attack officers, she was arrested on June 4 and charged with five counts of threatening the life of a public official and one count of instigating, aiding, or participating in a riot. She was later indicted on a “breach of peace, high and aggravated” charge. According to the Associated Press, the jury acquitted Martin of the riot-related charge and reached no verdict on whether she threatened police officers’ lives. The jury only found Martin guilty of “breaching the peace,” which is typically punishable by a $500 fine and 30 days in jail. But prosecutors filed the charge as a “high and aggravated” crime, and Martin was ultimately sentenced to four years in prison.
“She’s in jail because she talked in America,” Sybil Dione Rosado, Martin’s trial attorney told the A.P. “She’s a dark-skinned Black woman who is unapologetically Black and radical.”
Breach of peace laws typically pertain to conduct that is categorically exempted from First Amendment protection, like playing loud music late at night or fighting in public. But they can also cover obscene or abusive language in public spaces. Martin’s speech occurred at a protest though, making the situation more difficult to categorize.
However, if Martin’s conviction were to be challenged on free speech grounds, it is possible it would still be upheld under the “fighting words doctrine.” Many state courts have found that cussing and yelling at police officers is a form of fighting words. While Martin did not curse at the police, the fighting words doctrine does not require speech to be profane. Rather, as Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy wrote in Chaplinsky v. New Ha
Article from Reason.com