Written by Gregory Monte.
I was inspired to write about this topic because of an interesting 2019 court decision from North Carolina. As you will read further along in this post, a woman was pulled over after a police officer heard someone in her car yell “mother-fucker.” When I started researching the case a bit more I realized that the First Amendment actually protects several types of “free speech” directed at police officers by regular citizens. Apparently, you would be acting within your rights if you wanted to curse out a cop who pulled you over.
Of course, I don’t recommend this type of action. Instead, I suggest that you be as polite as possible and hope that you get a warning rather than a full citation. If he still gives you the ticket or acts rudely toward you, don’t respond. You are much better off saving your “revenge” for later, either by beating the ticket in court or filing a complaint against the officer.
Having said that, I still think it is worthwhile to lay out exactly how far your First Amendment rights might extend when it comes to interactions with the police:
- Giving Middle Finger to a Cop
- Cursing at a Cop
- Cursing in Your Car
Giving the Middle Finger to a Cop
Yes, indeed, you are allowed to flip off a cop.
Earlier this year a Federal Appeals Court decided that the police can’t give you a ticket for doing this: Constitution protects giving the finger to police officers, court rules
“Turns out, the right to give a police officer the finger is protected by the Constitution, a federal appeals court ruled this week. Judge Jeffrey Sutton of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit wrote in his opinion Wednesday that: ‘Any reasonable officer would know that a citizen who raises her middle finger engages in speech protected by the First Amendment …’
Cursing at a Cop
This next set of cases are all from Ohio, so they might not necessarily apply in all states. Still they point to a right to criticize police and their activities.
“However, while a person has the right to verbally protest a police officer’s actions or even to argue or curse at an officer, that person does not have the right to hamper or impede the officer in the performance of his duties.”
“If a defendant’s actions are verbal in nature, then the above analysis implicates the First Amendment. Citizens must be given, considerable latitude to express their views about the police and their activities …”
“if the language does not constitute fighting words, a citizen’s verbal assault on a police officer does not, standing alone, constitute criminal conduct …”
Cursing in Your Car
But what about if a cop hears cursing in your car as you drive by? Again, the case cited below is from North Carolina so it may not apply everywhere, but it supports the idea that the First Amendment allows you to curse at the police: State v. Brown, 827 SE 2d 534 – NC: Court of Appeals 2019:
“On August 5th of 2017, Deputy Hoyle … was standing outside his patrol car in the parking lot of a closed gas station between 2:20 and 2:25 in the morning … the sole basis for the stop of defendant’s vehicle was that the deputy heard someone in the vehicle yell “mother f*****” as it passed by … The deputy did not know if the driver or a passenger yelled the words, did not know if there were passengers in the vehicle, did not know if the windows on the vehicle were up or down, and did not know who the words were directed towards. The deputy acknowledged that “[i]t could be directed towards us.”
The judge ruled as follows:
“Given the facts in this case, we hold the yelling of a profanity, which constitutes the totality of the circumstances justifying the stop in this case, did not establish an objectively reasonable basis for a stop …”