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Cohen v. California

    Brief Fact Summary. The Petitioner, Cohen (Petitioner), was convicted of maliciously and willingly disturbing the peace by wearing a jacket with his opinion of the draft on the back.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Profanity is neither obscene nor is it equivalent to “fighting words.”

    Facts. The Petitioner was against the Vietnam War. To express the extent of his feeling he wore a jacket that read, “Fuck the Draft” on the back while walking through the Los Angeles County Courthouse. Because of this action, he was charged and convicted of violating a section of the California code that prohibited “malicious and willful disturbances of the peace or quiet of any person or neighborhood by offensive conduct.”

    Issue. Is the use of profanity a protected expression?

    Held. Yes. The state may not make a simple display of profanity in a public area a criminal offense.

    Dissent. This speech fell within the standard of Chaplinsky.

    Discussion. If the public was confined to the area and exposed to the profanity, then the state would have a legitimate interest in protecting it. But, here the audience was free to look away if they felt offended. They were not “captives” forced to look at the jacket.


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