United States v. Bartow, No. 19-4496 (4th Cir. 2021)Annotate this Case
The Fourth Circuit reversed defendant's conviction and sentence for using "abusive language" in violation of Virginia Code 18.2-416, as assimilated by 18 U.S.C. 13. The court explained that the First Amendment permits criminalization of "abusive language," but only if the Government proves the language had a direct tendency to cause immediate acts of violence by the person to whom, individually, it was addressed.
The court concluded that the ugly racial epithet used by defendant undoubtedly constituted extreme "abusive language," but the Government failed to prove (or even to offer evidence) that defendant's use of this highly offensive slur tended to cause immediate acts of violence by anyone. In this case, the record contains no evidence that defendant employed other profanity, repeated the vile slur, or issued any kind of threat, let alone one dripping with racism. Furthermore, the Government failed to offer any contextual evidence that defendant's "mode of speech" was likely to provide violence by the store employee or the African American man or anyone else present.