Saturday, November 3, 2012

Free speech wins in Ohio 'crippled girl' case

From The Cincinnati Enquirer:

CINCINNATI — A Kentucky man committed no crime when he asked groups of people at an event in a public park here if they wanted "to laugh at the crippled girl," a Hamilton County jury decided Nov. 1.

The win for Forest Thomer II, 25, of suburban Cold Spring, Ky., also is a win for free-speech rights, he said.

"I think we've taken a negative situation and turned it into a positive situation," Thomer said after Thursday's verdict.

Thomer was doing what he called guerrilla marketing when he went to the May 23 Party in the Park event, hosted by the USA Regional Chamber of Commerce. To promote the comedy career of his friend, Ally Bruener, Thomer walked up to groups of people, pointed at Bruener — who has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair — and asked, "Do you want to laugh at the crippled girl?"

As the people were trying to recover from the seemingly inappropriate question, Bruener wheeled up, told a joke and then announced when and where her next performance would be.

Lori Salzarulo of the USA Regional Chamber of Commerce complained to police about Thomer's comments. Police threatened to shock Thomer with a Taser then arrest him.

Cincinnati Police Officer Dan Kreider charged Thomer with disorderly conduct, accusing him of "grossly abusive language."

The charge is a crime that could have sent Thomer to jail for up to 30 days and, Thomer insisted, also violated his right to free speech.

After Thomer accused the police of censorship, the city twice changed the charges, finally deciding to try him on a charge of "turbulent behavior."

Thomer and his lawyer, Danielle Anderson, believe Salzarulo wanted Thomer thrown out because she feared his kind of humor would ruin the chamber's event.

But her displeasure doesn't trump free-speech rights, even for Thomer's shocking language, the jury decided.
"It might be tasteless and you might not agree with it, but it's legal," Anderson said. "No one else (other than Salzarulo) came forward to complain."

Bruener, also of Cold Spring, testified at the four-day trial. She said Thomer was arrested for something he didn't do.

"It was unnecessary from the beginning," she said. She has said she is on a crusade to destigmatize the word "crippled."

After his acquittal, Thomer wouldn't rule out a possible civil suit against the city.

"We'll have to see what happens," Thomer said.