Upholding a Connecticut Appellate Court ruling in a case that hinged on what constitutes “fighting words,” the Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a homeowner who threatened to gun down two water company employees on his property.
The Aquarion Water Co. employees entered Laurence Parnoff’s property pursuant to an easement to perform fire hydrant maintenance. The employees went deeper onto the property after finding a cap in a shed and determining that someone had unlawfully tampered with it.
It was then, court records say, that Parnoff discovered them, and told the employees they had no right to be on his property. He threatened to go into his house, retrieve a gun and shoot them if they did not leave. The circumstances of that incident, the Appellate Court ruled and the state Supreme Court ultimately agreed by a 5-1 vote, didn’t constitute “fighting words.”
“Fighting words,” which incite hate or violence, are an exception to the U.S. Constitution’s protection for free speech under the First Amendment.
Parnoff had appealed to the Appellate Court to overturn a conviction for disorderly conduct related to the incident.
The Appellate Court concluded that Parnoff’s comments “were not fighting words because the state had failed to present sufficient evidence to establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that those statements were likely to provoke an immediate violent reaction from the employees.” In its ruling, released July 3, the high court agreed.
Connecticut Associate Supreme Court Justice Gregory D’Auria, who wrote the majority opinion, stated: “Even though threatening, we do not believe that the defendant’s statement, considered in context, was likely to provoke an immediate and violent reaction. … The evidence established that the defendant was walking around, wearing only shorts, carrying what appeared to be a can of worms, and otherwise appeared to be unarmed.”
D’Auria went on to write that the gun was in a different location, “decreasing the likelihood that an addressee [the workers] would consider any danger so imminent that he would be compelled to react with violence to dispel it.”
D’Auria also wrote that “given that this utterance was not fighting words … we cannot conclude that the words uttered by the defendant in this context were criminal.”
Richard Robinson, who heard the case as an associate justice and is now the Connecticut Supreme Court’s chief justice, was the lone dissenting judge.
Robinson wrote: “I respectfully disagree with the majority’s opinion, which allows the defendant to use the First Amendment to the United State’s Constitution to shield himself from what should be the obvious consequences of this unwarranted threat to two water company employees just doing their jobs.”
Norm Pattis of New Haven’s Pattis & Smith Law Firm represented Parnoff. Pattis did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
The state was represented by Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Mitchell Brody, State’s Attorney John Smriga and Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Michael DeJoseph. Brody and DeJoseph declined to comment Friday while Smriga did not respond to a request for comment.