In a recent ruling, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that a “Cops Ahead” sign is speech protected by the First Amendment. The decision came after a man in Connecticut was arrested for holding up such a sign on a public street.
The plaintiff in the case, Michael Friend, was arrested in 2018 for violating a Connecticut statute that prohibits interfering with a police officer. Friend was holding a cardboard sign that read “Cops Ahead” down the street from a distracted-driving enforcement operation conducted by the Stamford Police Department. Sergeant Richard Gasparino initially confiscated Friend's sign twice and ultimately arrested him. Friend argued that his sign was protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.
The resulting case made its way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which ultimately agreed with Friend. In his ruling, Judge Steven Menashi noted that restrictions on speech have historically been justified only when the speech in question is “integral to criminal conduct.” As the opinion notes, “the First Amendment is quite irrelevant if the intent of the actor and the objective meaning of the words used are so close in time and purpose to a substantive evil as to become part of the ultimate crime itself.” For example, it would be a crime to tell drug dealers a bust is coming, but as the court has just ruled, it would not be a crime to warn drivers to slow down. If anything, such a sign encourages safe driving.
The only offense with which Friend was arrested and charged was interference with a police officer, not aiding and abetting criminal activity. As the opinion states, “the Connecticut Supreme Court has long construed the statute ‘to proscribe only physical conduct and fighting words that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.’” Furthermore, the relevant section of the Connecticut penal code does not extend to traffic violations.
While this is a limited ruling, the court's decision is significant because it spotlights the tiny incidents that can chip away at our First Amendment rights. The ruling reaffirms the principle that the First Amendment protects a wide range of speech, including non-verbal forms of expression like holding up a sign.