A man’s use of the middle finger in a Flowery Branch church and his speech regarding the school system is protected by the First Amendment, according to a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court of Georgia.
The court announced its decision Monday that David Justin Freeman’s conviction for disorderly conduct, stemming from an Aug. 3, 2014, incident, must be reversed, “as the behavior for which Freeman was prosecuted falls outside of the applicable scope of the statute as properly construed.”
Jason Berry, a pastor at 12Stone Church, was offering a prayer for teachers that day, according to the Supreme Court’s summary of the case. Berry is listed as the associate executive pastor for ministry development on 12Stone’s website.
Freeman “shouted over the large congregation, ‘It’s your responsibility to raise your own children, and it is a sin to give them to a godless government,’” Freeman told the state’s Supreme Court justices in May as he appealed his conviction.
Freeman characterized Berry’s service as praising the school system “in spite of the erroneous things that they’re doing” and “essentially making a mockery of the children who are struggling in these schools.”
As a volunteer minister to the youth, he argued to the justices it was his “responsibility to defend” children from being mocked.
Freeman said he first raised his hand to register his objection before raising the middle finger.
The Hall County Solicitor’s Office argued the pastor was frightened by Freeman’s actions.
The sentence for the disorderly conduct charge was 12 months on probation and a $270 fine.
The charge was acting “in a tumultuous manner toward Jason Berry whereby said victim was placed in reasonable fear of the safety of said person’s life, limb or health by screaming, shouting or using obscene gestures.”
Freeman argued the words “tumultuous” and “reasonable fear” in the disorderly conduct charge are ill-defined.
“However, a raised middle finger, by itself, does not, without more, amount to fighting words or a true threat,” according to the court’s opinion.
The solicitor’s office argued in May the case had more to do with the totality of the circumstances than any one gesture.
The court ruled Freeman cannot be retried on the disorderly conduct charge.