1. Scary! Fake Graveyards, Insulting Tombstones, & A Lawsuit Over Free Speech Violations…

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    “Can I put fake gravestones with my neighbors’ names on them in my front yard after they petition the city to enact an ordinance requiring me to remove my 38-foot RV from my driveway?” (Derek Allen at Winthrop & Weinstine

    Nothing says “Happy Halloween” better than fake gravestones in the front yard, right? Especially when those tombstones have your neighbors’  names on them and lead to a lawsuit over the constitutional right to free speech.

    The background, from attorney Derek Allen at Winthrop & Weinstine

    “Jeff and Vicki Purtell parked their RV in their driveway… Their neighbors … complained and eventually spearheaded an effort to ban the storage of RVs on residential property. With Halloween in the air, the Purtells responded like any of us would by erecting fake gravestones with their neighbors’ names on them, along with strangely-capitalized poems describing their respective deaths. My favorite: ‘BeTTe wAsN’T ReaDy, BuT here she Lies Ever since thAt night She DieD, 12 Feet deep in this trench … Still wAsn’T Deep enough For thAt wenches STench!’”

    The neighbors were not amused, explains Jamie Ribman at law firm Looper Reed

    “Upset, the neighbors called the police who arrived to mediate. Instead, [Purtell] was ordered to take down his graveyard or face arrest.  Begrudgingly, [Purtell] complied and later sued to assert his First Amendment right to free speech.”

    The lawsuit made its way to federal court, where a three-judge panel ruled in favor of Purtell:

    “At trial, the officer argued that the tombstone inscriptions were not constitutionally protected speech because they were “fighting words,” an exception to the First Amendment. […] [T]he Court … found that the embarrassment, anger, resentment and fear caused by the tombstones were simply not enough to reach the level of “fighting words.” The police officer’s order for [Purtell] to remove his mock graveyard was a violation of his constitutionally protected First Amendment right of free speech.”

    The moral of the story? “Choose your words carefully,” warns Ribman:

    “Personally insulting words accompanied by some sort of threatening conduct will often not enjoy the benefits of constitutional protection.”

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    The updates:

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    For your holiday enjoyment, a collection of Halloween-themed updates, from lawyers writing on JD Supra:

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    Get additional legal commentary and analysis at JD Supra Law News»

Notes

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