Connecticut’s “racial ridicule” statute, adopted in 1917, criminalizes any “advertisement” that “ridicules or holds up to contempt any person or class of persons” because of their “creed, religion, color, denomination, nationality or race.” But police and prosecutors ignore the law’s “advertisement” element, treating the statute instead as a de facto ban on “hate speech.” Police use the law to arrest people — often homeless or mentally ill — who utter racial slurs, especially when directed at police officers.
That interpretation violates the First Amendment. While some instances of hateful expression may be criminalized because they fall into a category of unprotected speech (like “fighting words” or “true threats”), there is no “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment. And it’s especially unlikely for insults directed at police officers to amount to unprotected “fighting words” because police are expected to have the mettle to endure insults without responding with violence.
After attorney Mario Cerame filed a federal lawsuit challenging the law’s constitutionality, the federal district court asked the Connecticut Supreme Court to clarify whether the law reaches Cerame’s noncommercial speech. On December 19, 2022, FIRE and Prof. Eugene Volokh filed an amicus brief showing how the law is actually applied based on public records we obtained. We urged the Court to clarify that the law does not reach anything other than an “advertisement” and help curb police abuse of the law.
On April 22, 2023, Connecticut's Supreme Court did exactly that, holding that the law only reaches commercial advertisements, making it less likely that Connecticut police will continue to abuse the law to punish expression they find offensive.