(CN) – The First Amendment protects a Nebraska man’s right to send fiery emails accusing his former political science professor, then a state legislative candidate, of being an al-Qaida sympathizer, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled, overturning the former pupil’s conviction for disturbing the peace.
Darren Drahota’s conviction was based on a pair of anonymous emails he sent to University of Nebraska political science professor William Avery, who was running for the state Legislature.
After the men exchanged 18 emails filled with fiery and sometimes profane political debate, Avery asked Drahota not to contact him again and threatened to call police if he did.
Four months later, Avery received two anonymous emails from “averylovesalqaeda” at yahoo.com.
The first email suggested that Avery attend the funeral for Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, an “al-queda leader” and “dear friend of your anti-american sentiments” (sic). The second email called Avery a “traitor” and continued, “I have a friend in Iraq that I told all about you and he referred to you as a Benedict Arnold … I’d like to puke all over you. People like you should be forced out of our country.”
Police traced the emails to a computer owned by a woman with whom Drahota was living. Drahota was convicted of disturbing the peace and fined $250.
The state appeals court upheld his conviction under the “fighting words” exception to free speech protection, but the Nebraska Supreme Court reversed.
“Even when criticisms of public figures are outrageous, if they fall short of provoking an immediate breach of the peace, they are protected by the First Amendment,” Justice William Connolly wrote.
“Drahota’s rants, although provocative and insulting, were not fighting words. We reverse and remand because the First Amendment protects Drahota’s speech.”