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Man Barks at Dog. Is It Free Speech?

Claims First Amendment covers his bad behavior

Ryan Stevens’ attorney is arguing that his client was just exercising his First Amendment rights. Photo by Cara Owsley.

When an intoxicated man emerges from a bar, stumbles around the parking lot, puts his nose up to the window of a police car, and antagonizes the dog in the car by barking at him, is it a misdemeanor, as the law states? Or is it free speech, protected by the First Amendment.

That’s the question in Mason Municipal Court, Ohio, where Ryan Stephens was cited with sticking his face two inches from a squad car window and barking at Timber, the department’s police dog.

When Officer Bradley Walker ticketed Stephens under a state law forbidding barking at a police dog, Stephens replied, “The dog started it.”

Now a canny attorney is working to get the case dismissed, arguing that barking is nothing more than a form of speech, even if it’s not in a familiar language.

James Hardin is preparing a motion to dismiss and suppress, claiming his client’s barking is protected under the First Amendment.

“This is just speech,” he said, “whether it’s in a language someone understands or not, it’s still protected speech, unless it rises to the level of being so offensive that it constitutes a fighting word, where it would invoke a violent response and is intended to do so. It might not be what most people would do … But it still would constitute speech.”

Walker said he was outside the car investigating a car crash at the Mason Pub when he heard the dog “barking uncontrollably” in response to Stephens’ alleged taunting.

“Timber responded as trained, and started to bark,” the officer wrote. He says he told Stephens that deliberate teasing would result in the dog responding aggressively through the window to the point where he could potentially injure himself.
Police Chief Ron Ferrell said there is a good reason for the state law prohibiting harassing dogs in this way. Police dogs may get hurt trying to get through a window or the cage separating the front and back seats.

What do you say? Regardless of what you personally think of Stephens’ behavior, would you say that barking at Timber constituted a form of free speech? Or would you agree with Chief Ferrell and Officer Walker that Stephens’ action was not simply speech but was endangering the dog? Let us know in a comment or on Facebook. And we’ll watch to see how the judge rules.