The Kentucky Senate has passed law that raises grave concerns about freedom of expression. The bill would make it a crime to “mock” a police officer, an act that sweeps a series of protected speeches under the Penal Code and faces serious constitutional challenges.
The invoice contains the following provision:
(1) A person is guilty of the second degree of disorderly behavior when he is in a public place and intends to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or willfully create a risk for it.
(a) engages in fighting or in violent, turbulent or threatening behavior; (b) makes inappropriate noise; (c) refuses to comply with an official diversion order issued to maintain public safety in dangerous proximity to a fire, hazard, or other emergency;[ or] (d) creates a dangerous or physically objectionable condition by any act that is not for a legitimate purpose; or (e) Insults, insulted, ridiculed, or challenged a law enforcement officer with abusive or derisive words, or through gestures or other physical contact that would have a direct tendency to provoke a violent response from the point of view of a reasonable and prudent person.
Police officers are representatives of the state and are therefore often the focus of insults and ridicule by citizens. Most of us condemn such verbal attacks, but they often reflect deeper political or social problems.
Officials are trained to withstand impulses that “have a direct tendency to provoke violent reactions among citizens”. The courts have upheld citizens’ right to insult the police, which is an unfortunate aspect of policing. In 2015 the The Washington Supreme Court ruled These police failed to arrest a 17-year-old who called them “pigs”.
In Kentucky, the sponsor, Republican Senator Danny Carroll, said he responded to protests last summer and was particularly sensitive to such abuse as a former police officer.
Carroll’s motivation is commendable, but I have serious doubts that his legislation is constitutional. We ask a lot of our officers. However, this legislation would restrict core protected speech under an ambiguous criminal standard.