Robert Bell is fighting for a quintessential expression of free speech in New York and New Jersey — he was arrested for flipping the bird at police officers. We have seen such cases in other states where officers have arrested citizens for this vulgar but protected form of speech. After Bell was charged with disorderly conduct for making an “obscene gesture” and causing public alarm and annoyance, the charges were dropped. He then sued. As in so many other cases of abusive arrests, there is no record of any discipline taken against the officers who made the groundless arrest. The lack of discipline allows some officers to carry out baseless arrests with the knowledge that the citizen will be punished by the inconvenience of going to jail or to court or both — with the added need of securing an attorney.
Bell, 26, was leaving the Slaughtered Lamb Pub on West 4th Street last August when he flipped his middle finger for “one to two seconds” after a group of officers passed him in the night. An officer was trailing behind and saw the gesture — arresting Bell, who was required to plead not guilty and prepare for a trial before the case was dismissed. He explained that he made the gesture “Because I don’t like cops.”
Citizens have continued to win damages in such cases, but police continue to abuse their authority in arresting people for making vulgar statements or gestures toward them. I find the gestures to be personally obnoxious, disrespectful, and juvenile. However, it is also clearly protected. Abusive arrests designed to curtail free speech should be a priority for the city to deter among its officers. The only deterrence is to show that officers who arrest people for the exercise of free speech will be disciplined and put through additional training. Instead, prosecutors in this case appear to have allowed this case to be docketed and prepared for trial.
Source: N.Y. Magazine