Houston v. Hill is a remarkable U.S. Supreme Court case that tackles abuses of power by police departments. The Supreme Court decided 7-2 that a Houston, Texas ordinance that was routinely used to arrest citizens for merely “arguing, talking, interfering, failing to remain quiet, refusing to remain silent, verbal abuse, cursing, verbally yelling, and talking loudly” toward a police officer.
Not only did the Supreme Court rule this type of conduct to be protected First Amendment speech, but the Supreme Court also expressed that the right to question police conduct is a fundamental distinction between democracy and dictatorship.
Consider these key quotations:
- the First Amendment protects a significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge directed at police officers. Speech is often provocative and challenging [b]ut it is nevertheless protected against censorship or punishment, unless shown likely to produce a clear and present danger of a serious substantive evil that rises far above public inconvenience, annoyance, or unrest.
- a properly trained officer may reasonably be expected to “exercise a higher degree of restraint” than the average citizen, and thus be less likely to respond belligerently to “fighting words.”
- The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state.
- Although we appreciate the difficulties of drafting precise laws, we have repeatedly invalidated laws that provide the police with unfettered discretion to arrest individuals for words or conduct that annoy or offend them.
- in the face of verbal challenges to police action, officers and municipalities must respond with restraint. We are mindful that the preservation of liberty depends in part upon the maintenance of social order. But the First Amendment recognizes, wisely we think, that a certain amount of expressive disorder not only is inevitable in a society committed to individual freedom, but must itself be protected if that freedom would survive.
- Although some of these incidents may have involved unprotected conduct, the vagueness of these charges suggests that, with respect to this ordinance, Houston officials have not been acting with proper sensitivity to the constitutional rights of their citizens.
READ THE FULL TEXT OF THE DECISION