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Sullivan Legislature votes to settle First Amendment lawsuit; Obscene words on speeding ticket at issue

Willian Barboza

By Fritz Mayer
February 25, 2016

The Sullivan County Legislature on February 25 voted unanimously to settle a a lawsuit brought by Willian Barboza, who had been arrested in 2012 for scrawling offensive language on a traffic ticket in Liberty.

The legislators agreed to pay $30,000 to Barboza, and another $45,000 to his attorneys. (As an aside, former county attorney Sam Yasgur, who handled the case for the county, said that Barboza at one point contacted Yasgur's office and said he would like to settle the matter apart from his attorneys.)

Back in 2012, Barboza scrawled five offensive words on the speeding ticket before sending it in with payment. With a very broad interpretation of the words, one could have thought that the words constituted a threat to the female employees of the Town of Liberty. Town Judge Brian Rourke did not accept the payment and ordered that Barboza must appear in court. When Barboza showed up, he was arrested and prosecuted under a New York State law called the Aggravated Harassment Statute.

Rourke recused himself and the case was transferred to the Town of Fallsburg, where Town Justice Ivan Kalter dismissed the charge in March 2013, writing, “Without doubt the Defendant’s comment was crude, vulgar, inappropriate, and clearly intended to ‘annoy.’ Nevertheless, it is not a threat, it does not contain ‘fighting words’, or create an ‘imminent danger’" and he also said the state statute was subservient to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, "which provides for and allows a broad range of ‘free speech’ in the nature of opinion and public comment."

After that, the New York American Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and a separate law firm agreed to represent Barboza in a lawsuit against the Village of Liberty, the officers that arrested them and the county, because an assistant district attorney had been involved in the arrest. In September 2015, a federal judge ruled against the county and said Barboza's civil rights had been violated.

Mariko Hirose, an NYCLU attorney, wrote at the time, “New Yorkers should not be afraid to protest or complain about a speeding ticket—or any other government action—because they might be dragged to jail for using a few harmless words. The First Amendment protects people’s right to express their opinions about the government, and our government is better for it.”