RICHMOND, Va. — In a victory for free speech, Judge Stoudt of the Circuit Court for the City of Richmond has dismissed the Commonwealth of Virginia’s case against Nathan Cox, an Iraq War veteran and civil activist, who was issued a citation for disorderly conduct after he used a bullhorn to call out to a police officer who appeared to be conducting a traffic stop, remarking, “Stop harassing people—we pay your paychecks.” Judge Stoudt ruled that Cox’s speech was protected by the Constitution. In coming to Cox’s defense, attorneys working with The Rutherford Institute challenged the use of disorderly conduct laws to silence constitutionally protected free speech.
“Under the U.S. Constitution, people can’t be criminally convicted for simply exercising their right to free speech, and it shouldn’t matter who the object of their speech is, whether they are challenging a police officer or the president of the United States,” stated John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “If the First Amendment means anything, it means that speech that is disagreeable or annoying is protected and cannot simply be written off as ‘disorderly conduct.’ To make exceptions for the police would be to concede that we indeed live in a police state, and I for one am not ready to make that concession.”
On April 15, 2011, Nathan Cox was driving in the Richmond area when he passed a police officer who appeared to be conducting a traffic stop. Raising his bullhorn, Cox called out to the officer, “Stop harassing people—we pay your paychecks.” A few minutes later, the officer forced Cox to pull over. Despite Cox’s protest to the officer that his words were protected by the First Amendment and thus could not form the basis for criminal prosecution, the officer issued Cox a summons, charging him with “disorderly conduct.”
As Institute attorneys point out, Virginia’s disorderly conduct statute specifically excludes “the utterance or display of words” from the definition of the offense, thereby ensuring that citizens cannot be punished for pure speech. Nevertheless, the General District Court judge found Cox guilty for “being a jerk,” and imposed upon him a $250 fine, with 10 days of jail time suspended. Despite the clear implications for First Amendment freedoms, the judge declared that this was not a First Amendment case.
Attorneys working with The Rutherford Institute appealed the General District Court ruling to the state Circuit Court, pointing out that Virginia’s disorderly conduct statute specifically excludes “the utterance or display of words” from its definition. In dismissing the case, Judge Stoudt ruled that Cox’s speech was protected by the Constitution. Attorney Thomas H. Roberts assisted in Cox’s defense.
The Rutherford Institute has recently begun investigating disorderly conduct statutes in various states, and will soon be launching an educational program aimed at training law enforcement officials in distinguishing between punishable disorderly conduct and constitutionally protected expression.