“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.
“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!’”
“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.”
- How Not to Share Halloween With Your Neighbors - Winthrop & Weinstine, P.A.
- Them’s Fighting Words! - Looper Reed & McGraw, P.C.
For your holiday enjoyment, a collection of Halloween-themed updates, from lawyers writing on JD Supra:
- The Scariest Day of the Year…for Legal Claims Too
- Forget the Ghost … Beware of the Sexy Nurse
- Beware of Things That Go Bump in the Night: Spooky Automobile Insurance Case
- Unexplained Noise Issues in Condominiums - Is Your Condo Haunted?
- Can You Be Forced to Get Your Halloween Scares From a Billboard?
- How to Keep Your Kid Safe and Out of the ER on Halloween
- Witches, Warlocks….and Santa? Religious Accommodations During the Holiday Season
- Have a Wonkaful Halloween
- Frights Survive Halloween Night - Bed Bugs Continue to Bite
- A Hallowe’en Theme for a Copyright Post
- A Monster Mash of Halloween Store Marks
Get additional legal commentary and analysis at JD Supra Law News»