ERIE, Pa. — A western Pennsylvania judge has overturned criminal charges filed against two students who held an offensive sign at a high school football game.
Citing free speech, Erie County Judge Stephanie Domitrovich on Friday acquitted the Corry students of disorderly conduct, the Erie Times-News reports.
Corry police charged the two teens after they walked past the stands of the visiting Northwestern High School Wildcats on Sept. 27. The boys were 17 and 16 years old at the time of the charges.
One student carried a sign that read "(hash)32 sucks," an apparent reference to a Northwestern star player. Prosecutors argued those were "fighting words" that do not enjoy free speech protection.
"The boys should have never been put through this," the father of the older boy said, according to the Times-News.
The acquittal reverses convictions that another judge issued against the teens in November, and the students' fathers said they appealed out of principle. They said they did not condone their sons' conduct, but that the behavior never amounted to a crime.
"At least the judge figured it out," the father of the younger student said.
Domitrovich wrote that she based her verdict on two U.S. Supreme Court cases and a state Supreme Court case. The federal cases establish First Amendment rights for students. The state case distinguishes between free speech and activities that rise to disorderly conduct, such as a demonstration that creates a commotion.
Defense attorneys argued that the students "did not enter the stands, not confront the spectators in any way, except to walk by them."