The mission of the Connecticut Judicial Branch is to serve the interests of justice and the public by resolving matters brought before it in a fair, timely, efficient and open manner.

Criminal Law Supreme Court Opinion

by Booth, George


SC20145 - State v. Liebenguth (Criminal; Free Speech; "Under General Statutes § 53a-181 (a) (5), a person is guilty of breach of the peace in the second degree when, with the intent to cause inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, he uses abusive language in a public place. That broad statutory proscription, however, is limited by the free speech provisions of the first amendment to the United States constitution, which prohibit the government from "restrict[ing] expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content"; (internal quotation marks omitted) Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union, 535 U.S. 564, 573, 122 S. Ct. 1700, 152 L. Ed. 2d 771 (2002); thereby protecting speech "without regard . . . to the truth, popularity, or social utility of the ideas and beliefs [that] are offered." National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People v. Button, 371 U.S. 415, 445, 83 S. Ct. 328, 9 L. Ed. 2d 405 (1963). These safeguards, however, although expansive, are not absolute, and the United States Supreme Court has long recognized a few discrete categories of speech that may be prosecuted and punished, including so-called "fighting words"—"those personally abusive epithets [that], when addressed to the ordinary citizen, are, as a matter of common knowledge, inherently likely to provoke violent reaction." Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 20, 91 S. Ct. 1780, 29 L. Ed. 2d 284 (1971). In this certified appeal, we must determine whether certain vulgar and racially charged remarks of the defendant, David G. Liebenguth, which included multiple utterances of the words "fucking niggers" directed at an African-American parking enforcement official during a hostile confrontation with that official following the defendant's receipt of a parking ticket, were "fighting words" subject to criminal sanctions. As a result of his conduct, the defendant was arrested and charged with breach of the peace in the second degree in violation of § 53a-181 (a) (5) and, following a trial to the court, was found guilty. On appeal to the Appellate Court, the defendant claimed, inter alia, that the evidence was insufficient to support the trial court's finding of guilty because the words he uttered to the parking official constituted protected speech that could not, consistent with the first amendment, provide the basis of a criminal conviction. See State v. Liebenguth, 181 Conn. App. 37, 47, 186 A.3d 39 (2018). Although acknowledging that the defendant's language was "extremely vulgar and offensive" and "meant to personally demean" the official; id., 53; the Appellate Court, with one judge dissenting, agreed with the defendant that his speech was constitutionally protected and that, consequently, his conviction, because it was predicated on that speech, could not stand. See id., 54; see also id., 58 (Devlin, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). We granted the state's petition for certification to appeal, limited to the question of whether the Appellate Court correctly concluded that the defendant's conviction must be reversed because the first amendment barred his prosecution for the verbal statements at issue. See State v. Liebenguth, 330 Conn. 901, 189 A.3d 1231 (2018). We now conclude that the defendant's remarks were unprotected fighting words and, therefore, that his conviction does not run afoul of the first amendment. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Appellate Court in part and remand the case to that court with direction to affirm the trial court's judgment with respect to his conviction of breach of the peace in the second degree.")