ACLU Files Two Free-Speech Lawsuits Against Police For Arresting People Who Used "Naughty Language"

July 2, 2002 12:00 am

ACLU Affiliate
ACLU of Pennsylvania
Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States


PITTSBURGH- In two federal civil rights lawsuit filed today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Greater Pittsburgh said that police violated the rights of a retired Army officer and two college students who were arrested for using profanity in public.

“”The ACLU intends to use these lawsuits, and others that are likely to follow, to teach Western Pennsylvania police officers that they are not Miss Manners and they cannot send people to jail simply for using naughty language,”” said Witold Walczak, Executive Director of the Pittsburgh ACLU. “”Understandably, many people don’t like to hear profanity, but under our Constitution it is not, and cannot be, a crime.””

The first case involves East Hills resident Erica Upshaw, 28, a mother of three who was honorably discharged from the United States Army. At the time of the incident, Upshaw was a school-bus driver and church-school counselor. On July 15, 2000, North Braddock police pulled Ms. Upshaw over for allegedly running a stop sign. After a lengthy detention, the police advised Ms. Upshaw that her car was being towed because of a suspended license, something that later was shown not to be true. When Ms. Upshaw responded, “”Boy am I having a bullshit day,”” she was arrested for disorderly conduct. A judge subsequently dismissed all charges.

The second case involves Amy Johnston, 27, a Chatham University undergraduate student and part-time children’s nanny, and Gregory Lagrosa, 29, a library assistant with the Carnegie Library and part-time graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh. On November 26, 2000, the couple was exiting the Homestead Giant Eagle grocery store when a police car nearly ran them over in the crosswalk. When Amy yelled, “”It’s a crosswalk, asshole,”” the officer chased them down and made enraged comments about being called an “”asshole.”” He then arrested both of them. A judge subsequently dismissed all charges.

“”Not one of these three people did anything illegal,”” said Bruce Boni, a volunteer ACLU lawyer handling the Upshaw case. “”The police officers were offended by profanity, so they abused their authority and misused the public trust by arresting upstanding, law-abiding citizens.””

Several witnesses to the Johnston/Lagrosa arrest protested to the arresting officer that Johnston and Lagrosa had done nothing wrong and that he was not hired to arrest people because he doesn’t like their language.

Scott Hare, a volunteer ACLU lawyer representing Johnston and Lagrosa, agreed. “”The police are hired to protect the public from criminal conduct, not coarse language. Unfortunately, this officer used the authority of his badge and the Pennsylvania criminal code, in contravention of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, to enforce his personal dislike of certain protected speech,”” he said. “”I hate to imagine what would have happened if a real crime were taking place a block away while this officer was spending time arresting two law-abiding citizens for calling him a name.””

A review of the police blotter for the days surrounding the Johnston/Lagrosa arrest indicates that Homestead police responded to a robbery, a burglary, two missing persons reports, and numerous drug offenses, domestic disputes, traffic accidents and DUI’s.

Walczak said that the ACLU gets several similar complaints every year about police officers who arrest people either for swearing or making offensive gestures. Police routinely misinterpret Pennsylvania’s disorderly conduct statute, which makes it a crime to use “”obscene language.”” But while the courts have been nearly unanimous that this provision applies only to sexually obscene speech, and that police cannot arrest people for swearing, far too many police departments allow their officers to punish people for simple profanity, he said.

Walczak said that today’s lawsuits were intended to serve notice on other police departments that they should train their officers better about how the disorderly conduct statute should be applied and that it cannot be used to punish people simply for swearing.

The two cases, filed separately today in the U. S. District Court in Pittsburgh, are Upshaw v. North Braddock Police Dept., at al., CA-02-1171, and Johnston and Lagrosa v. Homestead Boro, et al., CA-02-1170. The complaints are online at /FreeSpeech/FreeSpeech.cfm?ID=10503&c=42 and /FreeSpeech/FreeSpeech.cfm?ID=10504&c=42

Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.

Learn More About the Issues in This Press Release