SCRANTON, PA - The City of Scranton has agreed to pay $19,000 to settle damages and attorneys’ fees claims with resident Dawn Herb, who was charged with disorderly conduct for cursing at her overflowing toilet.
“It’s clear the city was wrong, however I’m glad that I was able to fight for my rights. In the end, I found justice,” said Herb.
Last October a city police officer cited Herb after her neighbor Patrick Gilman, an off-duty police officer, overheard her cursing at the toilet through an open window and called his on-duty counterpart to report her. Herb, a single mother of four, faced 90 days in jail and a $300 fine.
On December 13, 2007, Judge Terrence V. Gallagher found Herb not guilty, ruling that although her language “may be considered by some to be offensive, vulgar and imprudent . . . such representations are protected speech pursuant to the First Amendment.”
“This case is a successful example of our battle to enforce citizens’ First Amendment rights—that includes speech that may be offensive to some, including government officials, but which is absolutely protected by the First Amendment. It is important that police remember that they cannot arrest citizens for speaking freely, even if the speech contains profanity that offends them,” said Barry Dyller, the attorney who represented her against the criminal charges.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and Dyller then threatened a lawsuit for violation of Herb’s First Amendment right to free speech. To avoid suit, the city agreed to the $19,000 settlement.
“If we don’t have the freedom to use a few choice words inside our own homes, then we really don’t have much freedom at all. I hope Scranton police have learned a lesson,” said Valerie Burch, ACLU of Pennsylvania staff attorney.
In spite of their illegality, disorderly conduct prosecutions for use of profanity are common. The ACLU-PA and Dyller have recently defended citizens cited in a number of Pennsylvania cities and towns, including Larksville, Nesquehoning, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Washington, North Braddock, Homestead and New Castle.
More about the case can be found here.