The Connecticut Supreme Court has acquitted a woman of a misdemeanor charge after she hurled insults at a grocery store manager, ruling that her right to insult is protected by constitutional free speech rights.
Nina Baccalla, 44, was arrested in Vernon, Connecticut in 2013 following an outburst of insults directed at a grocery store manager who told her it was too late to process a Western Union money transfer, the Hartford Courant reported.
According to prosecutors, Baccala called the manager “ugly” and “fat”, among other things..
Shortly after her verbal assault, Baccala was sentenced to 25 days in jail on the charge of breaching peace in public place. She appealed the sentence in the state Supreme Court, claiming that her insults are protected by the First Amendment and don’t constitute “fighting words”.
The so-called “fighting words” clause is an exemption for constitutional free speech rights, defined as words that “by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.”
On Friday, the state Supreme Court unanimously voted to overturn the conviction and the majority of judges voted in favor of acquittal.
In the majority opinion, Justice Andrew McDonald wrote that although Baccala’s insults were “extremely offensive and meant to personally demean” the store manager, they don’t break the law.
“Uttering a cruel or offensive word is not a crime unless it would tend to provoke a reasonable person to immediately retaliate with violence,” the judge wrote.
“Store managers are routinely confronted by disappointed, frustrated customers who express themselves in angry terms. People in authoritative positions of management and control are expected to diffuse hostile situations,” he added.
Prosecutor Mitchel Brody disagreed with the state Supreme Court’s decision, writing in his opposition to the appeal that the woman’s profane outburst did qualify as “fighting words” that allow the state to prosecute her for “abusive language”.