CHICAGO (CN) – A neighborhood feud resulted in angry words and a “chest-butt,” but the act of putting neighbors’ names on Halloween tombstones is protected free speech, the 7th Circuit ruled.
The focal point of the dispute is a 38-foot recreational vehicle parked in the driveway of suburban Chicago residents Jeffrey and Vicki Purcell. Their neighbors signed a petition to have it removed.
The Purcells responded by featuring the petitioners’ names on tombstones in their Halloween display. The tombstones described the petitioners’ grisly deaths and were written in an “Olde English” style, with death dates from centuries ago.
The neighbors are described as having been “fried,” killed by an “axe to the head” and being “sliced from ear to ear.”
The neighbors complained to the police that they felt threatened by the messages on the tombstones. The Purcells duct-taped the names, but the duct tape fell off, and the tombstones stayed up, even after Halloween had passed.
A chest-bumping argument ensued in front of a police officer, who threatened to take Jeffrey Purcell to jail if he didn’t remove the tombstones. Purcell finally removed them.
Judge Amy St. Eve determined that this violated the Purcells’ right to free speech. However, the court ruled that the police officer made an honest mistake by thinking that the tombstone crossed the line into the “fighting words” category, which is not protected free speech. Thus, the officer is protected by qualified immunity.