Free Speech and the Right to Curse at a Police Officer

Most pedestrians of Sproul Plaza have probably noticed that the University of California Police Department (UCPD) has been cracking down on bicyclists in recent weeks, handing out dozens of tickets to students in violation of the university’s ”Dismount Zone” policy. A relatively unknown and ignored rule, the Dismount Zone is a designated area on south campus where bicyclists are required to walk instead of ride their bikes during the heaviest hours of foot traffic on weekdays. So, when undergraduate Jim Allen saw UCPD officer Sean Aranas hypocritically violating the university’s Dismount Zone policy by riding a bike in Dwinelle Plaza last month, he got a little frustrated and decided to express his annoyance. Here’s how Officer Aranas described Jim’s subsequent actions in his official report:

I was on duty, in full police uniform, and was riding a marked patrol bicycle. I was riding 5-10 mph in Dwinell[e] Plaza. Subj. walk[ed] 7′ past me and said to me in a hostile voice, “Walk your fucking bicycle!” I ask[ed] subj. to stop and ID himself and he complied. Subj. confirmed he had been using profanity and talking to me because he did not believe police should ride bicycles in dismount zones.

As you’ve probably guessed from the report, Allen was cited for allegedly breaking the Student Code of Conduct, despite the fact that Officer Aranas could not pinpoint the specific policy he was in “violation” of. Having felt that his First Amendment rights were violated, Allen immediately contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a non-profit group that protects civil liberties on college campuses and which has dealt with several cases in Berkeley. With help from FIRE and from sensible bureaucrats at the Student Conduct and Community Standards office, the charges against Allen were completely dropped the following week– a much-needed victory for free speech, ironically at the very home of the Free Speech Movement.

Although some would object to the content of Allen’s speech, especially because it was directed toward a police officer, it is nevertheless protected under the First Amendment. The fact that the charges brought against him were dropped serves as a symbolic reminder of how all constitutional speech should be protected, regardless of the perceived “obscenity” or “disrespectfulness” of the speaker. After all, one cannot truly be a defender of free speech if he or she does stand up for it in even the most uncomfortable circumstances. Perhaps John Stuart Mill put it best when he made this observation in On Liberty: “Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being ‘pushed to an extreme’; not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any