While flipping off a cop probably isn’t the best idea ever, many have questioned whether or not it’s legal to do so. Can a cop issue you a ticket or even throw you in jail for shooting the bird? Or would this be considered an abuse of power and a violation of your First Amendment rights?
Let’s find out.
Your First Amendment Rights
Is flipping off a cop covered in the First Amendment? Here’s what the First Amendment says:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
In other words, the First Amendment gives you the right to free speech and expression without interference or constraint by the government. Freedom of speech, one could say, is the cornerstone of our country. It’s what makes us democratic.
With that in mind, one could make the argument that flipping off a cop is considered speech. It’s an expression, and therefore, maybe cops shouldn’t be able to ticket or arrest someone for doing it.
In fact, Ira P. Robbins, a law professor from American University told The Oregonian “The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently held that speech may not be prohibited simply because some may find it offensive. Virtually every time someone is arrested for this, assuming there’s no other criminal behavior … the case is either dismissed before trial or the person is convicted at trial and wins on appeal.”
There is one important thing to note in this statement, and that is, “assuming there’s no other criminal behavior.” Cops may try to justify ticketing you after flipping them off if they can find other charges (e.g. disorderly conduct, public intoxication, illegal lane changes, etc.) to write you up for.
Ticketed Citizens Get the Last Laugh
This is just what happened to Robert Ekas, an Oregon man, in 2007. Twice during the year, Ekas flipped off cops just because he felt he had the right to do so. Both times, he was pulled over. The first time, he was ticketed for an illegal lane change and improper display of license plates. The second time, he was pulled over and harassed, but he was never cited for anything. Ekas sued to uphold his freedom of speech rights. He was even featured on The Colbert Report.
In 2006, David Hackbart flipped of a police officer in Pittsburgh, PA. Hackbart was given a citation for disorderly conduct, and was slapped with a fine of $119.75. He appealed the ruling, and the charges were eventually dropped. However, Hackbart was far from done. The ACLU filed a lawsuit on his behalf for violating his First Amendment rights. The city of Pittsburgh ended up paying out $50,000 ($10,000 to Hackbart and $40,000 for the ACLU and lawyers’ fees).
Consider another case. In September 2009, Scott Schaper, a Kansas man, was ticketed for disorderly conduct after he shot the finger at a police officer who had just ticketed him for running a stop sign. Schaper filed a civil rights complaint, and the city of Olathe agreed to pay him $4,000 as well as an additional $1,000 to the ACLU. They also agreed to train their cops about freedom of speech to ensure citizen’s rights aren’t violated again in the future.
It’s not illegal to give the finger to a police officer. It’s your right to do so. However, flipping off a cop probably isn’t the smartest thing you can do. It’s sure to get their attention, and you can pretty much bet they’ll try to find something to ticket you for or to make your day unpleasant. Remember, disorderly conduct is a fuzzy area that often gives cops the right to make a judgment call, so unless you feel like dealing with the hassle of fighting charges to get them dropped, it’s probably best just to reel that finger in. That is, of course, unless you’re like Robert Ekas (the Oregon man mentioned earlier) who feels it’s his duty as an American to flip off every cop he sees to uphold our free speech rights.
Have you ever flipped off a cop?