19 Dec 2010

Flipping the bird… or some incidents thereof

1990: In the case of an Arizona man pulled over in 1987 for flipping off a cop, a federal court rules that "no matter how peculiar, abrasive, unruly or distasteful a person's conduct may be, it cannot justify a police stop unless it suggests that some specific crime has been, or is about to be, committed." It also ruled, "We cannot condone Duran's conduct; it was boorish, crass and, initially at least, unjustified. Our hard-working law enforcement officers surely deserve better treatment from members of the public. But disgraceful as Duran's behaviour may have been, it was not illegal; criticism of the police is not a crime."

2000: After being interrupted, a school board member in Allentown, Pennsylvania gives the finger to the board president. During his trial, the member argues his gesture had not been sexual, and therefore not obscene. But a tape of the meeting shows he'd later threatened to "put some Vaseline" on his bird. A judge fines him $100.

2001: Robert Coggin allegedly gives the finger to a slow driver on a San Antonio highway. The driver calls police, and Coggin spends $15,000 over the next two years to get the $250 fine reversed. An appeals court rules that the digitus impudicus ("impudent finger") is protected speech, especially if its target is not "violently aroused."

2009: A federal judge ruled that police had violated David Hackbart's First Amendment rights when he was cited for flipping the bird at a Pittsburgh police officer. In April 2006, Hackbart was attempting to parallel park when another driver blocked him. He flipped the driver off, then heard a voice say, "Don't flip that driver off!" It was a passing police officer, so Hackbart flipped him off too. The officer cited him for disorderly conduct and for violating a state law prohibiting the use of obscene language and gestures. The ACLU got involved. The city said the citation was given in retaliation by the officer, not for "blocking traffic," as the city contended. The city eventually settled with Hackbart for $50,000.

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