As Maryland State Police disbanded an anti-abortion rally along a crowded road near the center of Bel Air, a sergeant told a colleague that the 18 arrested protesters could "sit in a cell for an hour ... and two or three or four and rot."

The same trooper, during another conversation from the Bel Air barracks, said of the group holding signs depicting gruesome images of aborted fetuses, "I am about ready to tell them to get the hell out of this county."

But Sgt. Dona S. Bohlen, who retired last year, said a moment later, "I want to do it properly."

The comments of troopers and other officials, made on recorded lines, were used by protesters with Baltimore-based Defend Life in a federal lawsuit contending that the arrests on Aug. 1, 2008, were not handled properly or legally. This month, the state police settled the civil lawsuit for $385,000 after a federal judge said the activists' free speech rights had been "unquestionably restricted."

The exchanges on that Friday evening four years ago offer a rare look into the unvarnished chatter of police, catching them in unguarded conversations with motorists, a prosecutor, and each other.

They also provide a real-time example of the thorny First Amendment challenges that authorities face in confronting demonstrations that often push the limits of taste and decency. The Bel Air protest upset many motorists as they headed home during rush hour on one of Harford County's busiest roads.

"They are holding posters of, like, dead aborted babies with their heads cut off and things like that," one caller told police. "You have to go there, you'll be absolutely appalled." Another said: "The pictures are offensive, and I don't think they should be allowed to show them."

Citizens across the country repeatedly turn to police and other local authorities to set limits on speech that someone deems deplorable or offensive. And judges often step in to voice their unwillingness to impose too many restrictions on the First Amendment.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that Westboro Baptist Church had a right to peaceably picket a military funeral in Maryland with its hate-filled, anti-gay messages, writing that the Constitution "protects even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate."

In the Bel Air protest, state police charged 16 adults and two juveniles with disorderly conduct, impeding traffic and loitering. At least 10 of the Catholic activists spent the night in custody awaiting bail hearings — a punishment likely more severe, Harford County's chief prosecutor said in an interview, than the sentences they would have faced had they been convicted. All the charges were dropped.

The Baltimore-based activist group Defend Life, which held the protest, sued and obtained the police recordings from the Bel Air barracks under the Maryland Public Information Act. The Baltimore Sun independently obtained the same information from the state police to confirm its authenticity.

The tapes show that troopers were primarily concerned about the graphic images on the signs. Authorities struggled to find an applicable law that would allow police to disband or arrest protesters, and debated whether the group needed a permit.

Authorities concluded that the graphic nature of the signs contributed to the disruption of traffic. Police were also upset that the group ignored orders to "leave the county" and instead moved the protest four miles up the road, into Bel Air.

"When a police officer tells them 'leave the county,' they are not kidding," Bohlen told a colleague in a recorded conversation. "It's not a joke, and they need to understand that is not acceptable behavior."

Groups such as Defend Life — which has protested repeatedly over the years along Maryland roads and outside shopping centers — purposely use graphic images. Activists say such signs are designed to show "the reality of human abortion so as to persuade Americans to oppose it," according to Defend Life.

The organization's founder, Jack Ames, who was among those arrested, said he found it "deplorable, the lawlessness that went on" on the part of police. "They just arrested us and then they tried to figure out why they arrested us. ... I knew we were on intellectually solid ground, but the experience is frightening. I thought it would be the end of our group."

Attorneys for the activists said the state conceded the case in large part because of the candid comments by the troopers, including Bohlen. Her comments were singled out by U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett, who oversaw Defend Life's suit in Baltimore's federal court.

The judge issued a stern rebuke of the troopers' conduct in ruling that the anti-abortion group's case had merit and could proceed to trial. Bennett wrote that police enforced a "nonexistent permit" and illegally ordered the protesters out of the county.

The state police, the judge said, "unquestionably restricted" the protesters' free speech rights in "all of Harford County, and not merely a small section of Route 24."