Connecticut Supreme Court says speech, in a First Amendment case, crossed the line to threats
The state Supreme Court has ruled against a Danbury man in a free speech case, concluding that even though he may not have been explicitly threatening in an argument with staff at a day care center, he is not entitled to First Amendment protection because his physical movements, past confrontation with the staff and his demeanor in general were.
The high court decision Friday reverses the state Appellate Court and could result in an additional prison sentence for the father, Kerlyn M. Taveras. Taveras, who has previously been convicted on threatening and assault charges, is currently in prison on unrelated charges. He was convicted of breach of the peace for threatening speech during the day care argument in March 2014, and the Supreme Court decision could result in violation of his probation imposed on other criminal charges.
The unanimous Supreme Court decision, written by Justice Maria Araujo Kahn, turns on when otherwise obnoxious speech crosses a line to threats and the speaker loses Constitutional free speech protection. When considering what is a threat, the court said it is permissible to consider the context in which the speech occurs.
The standard for what is threatening, according to the decision, is “whether a reasonable person would foresee that the statement would be interpreted by those to whom the maker communicates the statement as a serious expression of intent to harm or assault…”
A trial judge said Taveras’s language was threatening, a divided Appellate Court disagreed and the high court disagreed again. Unlike the Appellate Court, the Supreme Court considered the entirety of Taveras’ behavior. Mitchell Brody, the senior appellate lawyer who pressed the appeal for the state Division of Criminal Justice, called the high court’s analysis an important step in the development of First Amendment law in the state.
Brody said the court decided there is a larger context for threatening behavior — beyond narrow analysis of language.
“It’s academic on a personal level, because Taveras is in prison and it won’t affect him,” Brody said. “It is not academic for the purposes of First Amendment jurisprudence.”
Taveras’s lawyer could not be reached.
The record in the case shows that Taveras arrived 40 minutes late to pick up the child at the day care center and was angry because the staff had called to remind him. At the time, he had completed a jail sentence and was on probation for three prior convictions, two for threatening and one for assault. On the way out of the center he began arguing with staff, the decision says.
As he left through a set of locking doors, a staff member said something to Taveras and, in reply, he turned and said "you better watch yourself, you better be careful” and, according to another witness, “you better watch your back,” the decision says. The staff said he tried to re-enter the center, but the doors had locked and he left.
The center director said she had seen Taveras act in an allegedly threatening manner before, the decision says. In fact, although she wasn’t present when the confrontation began, she returned when told that Tavares was going to be late because she "knew it would get escalated.’’ Upon arrival, she said she saw that members of the staff were “shaken up" and "concerned" by what had transpired. She said she called the police and left instructions that Tavares be barred from the center. She also began pursuing a restraining order and hiring additional security personnel.
Taveras met with the the police the next day. He was charged with breach of the peace and told he would be arrested for trespass if he returned to the center.
During a probation hearing, a Superior Court judge said Taveras had violated his probation. The judge said his conduct had been of a “threatening nature and demeanor” and he rejected the defense argument that the incident had been nothing more than “person being upset with the way a day care handles his child.”
The Supreme Court agreed.
“The defendant’s history at the preschool, his general demeanor during the course of this particular incident itself, and the subsequent reactions of the preschool’s staff, on balance, appear objectively to indicate the threat of the possibility of violence,” the court said in its decision.