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She swears the Constitution is on her side

Woman cited at O.C. airport over foul language says the law stifles free speech.

February 28, 2007|Roy Rivenburg | Times Staff Writer

If a "Snakes on a Plane" sequel is ever filmed at John Wayne Airport, actor Samuel L. Jackson had better watch his tongue -- unless a potty-mouthed dance student wins a free-speech lawsuit filed against Orange County this month.

Last summer, Elizabeth Venable of Riverside was cited for disorderly conduct after she allegedly yelled numerous obscenities to a friend while exiting the airport's baggage claim area.

An Orange County sheriff's deputy, noticing several families with small children nearby, had asked Venable to "please watch her language while at the airport," according to court documents.

Venable allegedly responded with an expletive-filled question about whether it was illegal to use expletives.

Yes, it is, the deputy advised.

Venable, who is studying for a PhD in dance history and theory at UC Riverside, was charged with violating an Orange County law that bans "disorderly, obnoxious [or] indecent" behavior at the airport, a misdemeanor.

Prosecutors later added a disturbing-the-peace charge based on her allegedly "loud and unreasonable" noise.

Venable, 26, is fighting back on two fronts: a 1st Amendment lawsuit in federal court and a criminal defense in Orange County Superior Court.

The federal suit, filed against Orange County, Sheriff Michael S. Carona and two deputies, seeks an injunction against enforcement of the county law. It contends that the law governing conduct at airports is unconstitutionally vague and improperly squelches free speech.

A motion filed by Venable's attorneys in Superior Court echoes the federal lawsuit in more detail.

In particular, it outlines a U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning a "disturbing the peace" charge against a man who wore a jacket that said, "[Expletive] the draft," inside a Los Angeles County courthouse where women and children were present.

Legal experts offered mixed opinions on Venable's chances for victory.

David B. Cruz, a USC law professor specializing in 1st Amendment issues, said the draft protest case isn't comparable because it involved political speech, which has more protections.

Venable is on stronger ground arguing that the airport conduct code is too vague and doesn't adequately define "obnoxious or indecent" behavior, he said.

Cruz predicted that the federal lawsuit would be rejected under the "abstention doctrine," which allows federal courts to refuse a case if there's a pending criminal hearing on the matter. That means Venable would have to make her constitutional arguments in Superior Court and, if necessary, state appellate courts, he said.

However, Michael H. Shapiro, another USC constitutional law expert, said a guilty verdict for Venable seemed unlikely. If the incident had occurred in an airport ticket line or at the gate, prosecutors might have a stronger case, he said, but "I don't see how they can validly prosecute her" for swearing outside the baggage area.

A Superior Court judge recently threw out the disturbing-the-peace allegation against Venable but ordered her to be arraigned in March on the disorderly conduct charge.

Venable didn't comment, nor did a spokesman for the Orange County district attorney's office.

*

roy.rivenburg@latimes.com

Staff writer Christine Hanley contributed to this report.

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