Constitutional for Georgia Man to Give Church Pastor the Finger

This is another case involving the constitutionality of laws that criminalize “disorderly conduct,” this time in Georgia.

David Freeman attended a church service and sat in the back. During the service, the pastor asked all teachers present to stand up so that the congregation could recognize and pray for them. Freeman stood up with the teachers, silently gave the pastor the finger, and “stared angrily” at him. When the pastor finished his prayer for the teachers, Freeman then “began yelling about sending children off to the evil public schools and having them raised by Satan.” Freeman later left.

Freeman’s disruption occurred at 12 Stone Church in Flowery Branch, Georgia.

Freeman was found guilty of of disorderly conduct under Georgia law, which makes it a crime to act “in a violent or tumultuous manner toward another person whereby such person is placed in reasonable fear of [his or her] safety.” Freemen challenged this law both facially and as-applied. (A facial challenge says “this law is unconstitutional.” An as-applied challenge says “what I did was protected by the constitution.”)

The Supreme Court of Georgia rejected Freeman’s facial challenge, but agreed with him on his as-applied challenge. Although the court found that Georgia’s disorderly-conduct law was neither unconstitutionally vague or overbroad, the court found that Freeman’s conduct was protected by the First Amendment. The court noted that “raising the middle finger as a form of insult has a long, if not illustrious, history dating back to ancient Greece,” that Freeman did not place anyone in reasonable fear for his or her safety, and that Freeman’s conduct did not constitute ‘fighting words.’ The court therefore found his conduct protected and vacated his conviction, making David Freeman a free man.

Case: Freeman v. State, No. S17A1040 (Ga. Oct. 2, 2017) (opinion here)

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