Prince William County Drops Abusive Language Charges against Man Who Allegedly Cursed at Campus Police

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
March 25, 2010 12:00 am

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Prince William County, VA — The Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney has dropped charges brought against Eric Trumbull, who was charged with abusive language for allegedly cursing at a Northern Virginia Community College campus police officer.

“We are pleased to see another victory for the First Amendment and to ensure that this fundamental liberty is once again protected,” said ACLU cooperating attorney Patrick N. Anderson. “We commend the Commonwealth’s Attorney for realizing that further prosecution of this case would have only been a violation of Mr. Trumbull’s free speech rights.”

Trumbull was charged with violating the state’s abusive language statute (Virginia Code §18.2-416), which states that: “If any person shall, in the presence or hearing of another, curse or abuse such other person, or use any violent abusive language to such person concerning himself or any of his relations, or otherwise use such language, under circumstances reasonably calculated to provoke a breach of the peace, he shall be guilty of a Class 3 misdemeanor.”

The Virginia Court of Appeals has ruled that this statute applies only to “fighting words,” language that is likely to cause an act of violence by the person at whom the words are directed as deemed by a reasonable person.

Moreover, the appeals court has ruled in Martilla v. City of Lynchburg that the “fighting words” doctrine may be limited in circumstances in which properly trained police offers are involved because they are expected to exercise greater restraint in their response than the average person.

The ACLU of Virginia believes Trumbull’s alleged speech did not constitute “fighting words” and was thus protected by the First Amendment.

Mr. Trumbull is represented by ACLU cooperating attorney Patrick N. Anderson of the Law Offices of Anderson, Graham, and Wooditch, P.C. in Alexandria and ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca K. Glenberg.

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