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Swearing woman wins court decision over arrest

By The Associated Press

08.24.02

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HOMESTEAD, Pa. — A woman arrested for swearing angrily at a police officer who nearly hit her in a crosswalk has won her court case against the municipality.

Amy Johnston, 27, was arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct for using an expletive after Homestead Borough police Officer Francis Keyes nearly hit her outside a grocery store in November 2000.

The borough agreed in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh on Aug. 19 to pay Johnston and a companion, 29-year-old Gregory Lagrosa, $5,000 each.

The lawsuit had alleged unlawful arrest and sought unspecified damages.

"Bad words are not against the law and to the contrary are expressly protected by the First Amendment," said Scott Hare, a lawyer for Johnston and Lagrosa.

Pennsylvania law specifically prohibits "obscene language or gestures," and civil rights advocates say about six people are charged with using uncivil language in western Pennsylvania every year.

"The case is part of a larger ongoing effort to educate Pennsylvania police officers that they cannot arrest people for using naughty language," said Witold Walczak, executive director of the ACLU's Pittsburgh chapter. "They may not like what people say or how they say it, but it's still free speech. You can't coerce respect by throwing people in jail.'"

Johnston and Lagrosa alleged that the Homestead Borough Police Department had a pattern or policy of authorizing its officers to arrest people illegally under Pennsylvania's disorderly conduct statute. Several witnesses had protested to the officer, saying that the two students had done nothing wrong.

Charges against Johnston and Lagrosa were dismissed.

Borough Mayor Betty Esper declined comment on the case.

Related

Court considers consequences of cussing at cops
Idaho Supreme Court to decide whether man's free-speech rights were violated when he was arrested for swearing at sheriff's detective.  09.19.02

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