Cursing at a teacher may get a student suspended.
But that doesn't make it a crime, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled Monday.
In a unanimous decision, the justices overturned the finding of a court commissioner that the student, identified only as Nikolas S., was delinquent.
Justice Scott Bales said state law does make it illegal to "abuse" a teacher. And he said that, in some circumstances, pure words may rise to that level.
But Bales said that, in this case, the student's words "were not inherently likely to provoke a violent reaction by the teacher." Absent that, the justice said, there is no crime.
The case involves two separate incidents.
In the first, Nikolas was assigned to a classroom for students serving on-campus suspension. He refused to give the teacher his cell phone when she saw him using it in class.
When she called security, he called her a "bitch" under his breath.
The second incident occurred two days later with the same teacher when Nikolas asked to be assigned to a different classroom. The teacher told him to wait while she sought administrative approval.
After about 15 minutes he became impatient and argumentative, with the result that other students began to stand up. The teacher later said the "whole room basically lost control."
It ended with Nikolas cursing at her several times before leaving the classroom.
Aside from being suspended, Nikolas was charged with a law dating from territorial times which makes it a crime to knowingly abuse a teacher or other school employee on school grounds or while that person is performing his or her duties.
Bales said the U.S. Constitution generally precludes any laws limiting speech. He said there are a few narrow exceptions, one of those for what the courts have called "fighting words."
Here, the justice said, applying the law to pure speech is unconstitutionally overbroad.
Bales said what prosecutors want is to apply the law to "contemptuous, coarse or insulting words." But that interpretation, he said, could easily include statements that otherwise are constitutionally protected.
"Indeed, the statute arguably would extend to a spectator who jeers at the visiting team's coach during a high school football game," Bales wrote.
And even the use of the ultimate F-word, he said, doesn't change that. Bales said the only time it crosses the line into fighting words, which can be restricted, is if words are likely to provoke violent reaction.
In this case, the justice said, the insults hurled at the teacher and the circumstances surrounding the incident are unlikely to have provoked a violent reaction from the teacher.
"We do not believe that the natural reaction of the average teacher to a student's profane and insulting outburst, unaccompanied by any threats, would be to beat the student," Bales wrote.
"Nikolas's conduct, although reprehensible, is properly punished through school discipline or possibly prosecution under other statutes," though he did not say what laws might apply.