Abusive Language Charges, Commonwealth v. Trumbull

Northern Virginia Community College Professor Eric Trumbull was charged with abusive language for allegedly cursing at a campus police officer.

Trumbull was charged with violating the state’s abusive language statute (Virginia Code §18.2-416), which states that: “If any person shall, in the presence or hearing of another, curse or abuse such other person, or use any violent abusive language to such person concerning himself or any of his relations, or otherwise use such language, under circumstances reasonably calculated to provoke a breach of the peace, he shall be guilty of a Class 3 misdemeanor.”

The Virginia Court of Appeals has ruled that this statute applies only to “fighting words,” language that is likely to cause an act of violence by the person at whom the words are directed as deemed by a reasonable person.  Moreover, the appeals court has ruled in Martilla v. City of Lynchburg that the “fighting words” doctrine may be limited in circumstances in which properly trained police offers are involved because they are expected to exercise greater restraint in their response than the average person.

The ACLU of Virginia was prepared to argue that Trumbull’s alleged speech does not constitute “fighting words” and is thus protected by the First Amendment.

On March 25, 2010, the Commonwealth's Attorney voluntarily dropped the charges.


Rebecca Glenberg, ACLU of Virginia

Pro Bono Law Firm(s)

Patrick N. Anderson, Law Offices of Anderson, Graham and Wooditch, P.C.

Date filed

March 15, 2010


Prince William County General District Court