An Air Force veteran did not have a First Amendment right to yell profanities at a respiratory therapist and police officers at a Veterans Administration hospital, a federal appeals court has ruled in upholding disorderly conduct convictions.
Jamison Krahenbuhl went to a VA outpatient clinic in Green Bay, Wis., in March 2021 for a respiratory therapy appointment. When a therapist told him he did not have sleep apnea, Krahenbuhl pounded the table and became agitated. Another therapist heard the disturbance and called the police. Krahenbuhl yelled profanities at the therapist and police officers who were called to quell the disturbance. The officers eventually had to pepper-spray Krahenbuhl.
Krahenbuhl was charged with two counts of disorderly conduct under a federal regulation that prohibits loud and abusive language at VA clinics. A magistrate judge found him guilty on both counts. On appeal, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the convictions Dec. 14 in United States v. Krahenbuh.
The appeals court focused on the fact that the veterans’ outpatient clinic was a nonpublic forum for First Amendment purposes, meaning that regulations on speech need only be reasonable and viewpoint-neutral.
The federal regulation prohibits “disturbances” which amount to “the use of loud, abusive, or otherwise improper language.” The appeals court noted that although the language of the regulation was broad, it “does not prohibit speech expressing discontent with the VA but rather language that could adversely affect patients and impede Clinic operations.”
“The Clinic is a place veterans go to receive necessary medical treatment,” the 7th Circuit wrote. “Loud noises, shouting, abusive language, and other conduct that disrupts Clinic employees from their work is properly prohibited.”
David L. Hudson Jr. teaches First Amendment law and constitutional law classes at Belmont University College of Law. He is the author, co-author, or co-editor of more than 50 books, including The Constitution Explained: A Guide for Every American (Visible Ink Press, 2022) and The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (Thomson Reuters, 2012).
The Free Speech Center newsletter offers a digest of First Amendment- and news media-related news every other week. Subscribe for free here: https://bit.ly/3kG9uiJ