Georgia law against insulting public school officials in front of students ruled unconstitutional

In 2015, a Georgia man boarded his children’s school bus to complain that they were being bullied — by the bus driver’s grandchildren. Michael Antonio West didn’t swear or become violent, but according to a report in the Florida Times-Union, he still found himself facing criminal charges months after the fact.

The statute West was accused of violating, however, has now been ruled unconstitutional in a unanimous decision by the Georgia Supreme Court. Previously, it was illegal to “upbraid, insult or abuse a public school teacher, administrator or bus driver in the presence of a student at a school or on a bus.”

A video camera aboard the bus taped the entire encounter, which resulted in West facing charges that could have resulted in a fine of up to $500.

West’s lawyer, Jason Clark, was given permission by the trial court to appeal to the state supreme court immediately. The court ruled that while the law may have a legitimate purpose, it is overly broad in violation of the First Amendment.

Overbreadth, more than just an accurate adjective, is a legal doctrine that provides that a law is overbroad if it effectively penalizes constitutionally protected speech or actions along with the unprotected conduct it seeks to regulate.

In its decision, the Georgia Supreme Court stated:

“Further, though ostensibly seeking to prevent disruptions to education or school activities, the statute neither ties the prohibited expression to the disruption of normal school activities nor limits the prohibitions to specific, fixed times, such as when school is in session. McCall, 354 S2d at 872. Also concerning, the statute does not proscribe all speech that might be boisterous or disruptive; instead, OCGA § 20-2-1182 prohibits only that speech directed at public school officials which may be perceived as negative or unfavorable.”

The court cited Broadrick v. Oklahoma, a law upholding states’ ability to prevent employees from engaging in partisan political activities, in its decision:

“Such restrictions are only valid if they are ‘narrowly drawn and represent a considered legislative judgment that a particular mode of expression has to give way to other compelling needs of society,’”

It’s an important decision for free expression advocates, and the judges took great care to outline the reasons for their finding, emphasizing that they are bound to interpret the law as it was written and not only through the perceived intent of the legislators who passed it. As the Times-Union put it: “The high court unanimously found the statute overly broad because it did not forbid speech that “might be boisterous or disruptive” but instead prohibited only speech directed at public school officials that could be perceived as negative or unfavorable.”