Court: Profane speech protected by First Amendment

Posted: Thursday, February 03, 2000

OLYMPIA (AP) - The Washington Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a Bellevue law that forbids ``profane'' telephone calls, ruling in favor of a man who left an obscene message on his apartment manager's answering machine.

The word ``profane'' means ``not sacred,'' according to dictionary definitions. A statute that bans obscene, threatening telephone calls may be fine, but banning profane speech violates First Amendment rights, the court ruled.

The case stems from an August day in 1994 when Jon Lorang was ordered to move out of a King County Housing Authority apartment in Bellevue. Lorang called resident manager Edward Win and left four angry messages.

He called a female Housing Authority supervisor derogatory terms, according to court papers. In another message, he referred to a black supervisor as ``boy'' and predicted the man would come to his apartment with the sheriff and ``nine bros.'' He also referred to the Housing Authority as ``King of Kings.''

Lorang was arrested and sentenced to 20 hours of community service. He fought the conviction, claiming the Bellevue phone harassment ordinance was too broad and unconstitutionally restricts his speech.

``He had a legitimate basis for complaint,'' Lorang's attorney, Michael Mittlestat, said Thursday. ``Just because he used words that the person who received the call construed as impolite doesn't make it a crime.''

The supreme court agreed.

While acknowledging the ``low value'' of Lorang's message, Justice Charles Johnson wrote in his majority opinion:

``We find the general dictionary definition of 'profane' has a religious denotation and, thus, generally refers to speech that is accorded strong protection under the United States Constitution.''

Lorang was backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, which said the ordinance ``guts the First Amendment'' and could make it a crime to say bad words on the phone to a friend, relative or even a politician.

The city of Bellevue had argued that certain classes of speech are not entitled to constitutional protection, including lewd and obscene language, insulting or ``fighting words.''

Bellevue city attorney Jerome Roache said Thursday the city plans to ``revisit'' its telephone harassment ordinance to address the court's ruling.

The court decided 7-2 in favor of Lorang, with Justice Phil Talmadge writing the dissenting opinion. Talmadge wrote that the ordinary definition of ``profane'' does not have religious meaning and thus is not afforded constitutional protection.

Lorang moved away from Bellevue after his conviction and has ``definitely gone on with his life,'' Mittlestat said.

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