HARTFORD - A Connecticut woman who hurled a variety of insults at a grocery store manager was protected by constitutional free speech rights and will be acquitted of a misdemeanor charge, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday.
Nina Baccala was arrested in her hometown of Vernon in 2013 after subjecting a Stop & Shop assistant manager to a profanity-laced tirade. Prosecutors said she became enraged when the manager told her it was too late to process a Western Union money transfer.
Baccala called the manager “fat” and “ugly,” in addition to profane names, prosecutors said.
Baccala, 44, was convicted of breach of peace and sentenced to 25 days in jail. She appealed to the state Supreme Court, arguing that the name calling and insults did not fall within the “fighting words” exemption to constitutional free speech rights.
All seven justices on the state Supreme Court agreed the conviction should be overturned. Four voted in favor of acquittal, while three said there should be a new trial.
Justice Andrew McDonald wrote in the majority opinion that while the words and phrases that Baccala used were “extremely offensive and meant to personally demean” the manager, they were not criminal. He wrote that the evidence was insufficient to support Baccala's conviction under federal constitutional law.
“Uttering a cruel or offensive word is not a crime unless it would tend to provoke a reasonable person ... to immediately retaliate with violence,” McDonald wrote.
He added, “Store managers are routinely confronted by disappointed, frustrated customers who express themselves in angry terms. ... People in authoritative positions of management and control are expected to diffuse hostile situations.”
Baccala did not return messages seeking comment Friday. Her lawyer, Damian Gunningsmith, hailed the ruling as protecting citizens’ free speech rights.
Prosecutor Mitchell Brody declined to comment.
Brody wrote in his opposition to the appeal that Baccala's insults were “fighting words” and that the state's breach of peace law allows prosecution for “abusive language.”
The “fighting words” exemption to free speech rights dates to a 1942 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a New Hampshire case. In that case, Walter Chaplinsky was convicted of breach of peace for cursing at a town marshal in Rochester, New Hampshire, and calling him a “damned racketeer” and “damned fascist.”
Upholding Chaplinsky's conviction, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled there was an exemption to free speech rights for “fighting words,” which it defined as words “that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.”