Some legal experts question a judge’s invocation of the “fighting words” doctrine to acquit three police officers charged with beating businessmen in a bar, reports the Chicago Sun-Times. “Their use of ‘fighting words’ does not allow police officers or anyone else to beat them up. Police officers confronted by fighting words have a duty to control themselves,” said Indiana University Law Prof. Patrick Baude. Judge Thomas Gainer noted in his opinion that the police officers claimed one of the businessmen called one of the officers a “p – – – -” and another of the businessmen said the officer “needs to have his ass kicked.” The businessmen denied making those statements.
The Supreme Court defined “fighting words” as “those by which their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” Illinois courts have ruled that fighting words “must contain an implicit or implied threat” and “can lead to mutual combat,” Gainer wrote. Baude said the question of whether words are “fighting words” should be raised in the context of whether the utterers should be prosecuted for saying the words, not whether the utterers’ attackers should be acquitted for beating them. “To say that words can provoke you into justifiably beating the hell out of somebody — that’s just not the law,” said DePaul University Law Professor Len Cavise. Former prosecutor Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola University of Law in Los Angeles, fears the ruling “would really be a green light to officers who don’t like the attitude of people they encounter.”