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Cohen v. California

    Citation. 403 U.S. 15, 91 S. Ct. 1780, 29 L. Ed. 2d 284, 1971 U.S. 32.

    Brief Fact Summary. The Appellant, Paul Robert Cohen (Appellant), was convicted in the Los Angeles Municipal Court of violating California Penal Code Section:415, which prohibits “maliciously and willfully disturbing the peace or quiet of any neighborhood or person, by offensive conduct.” Appellant was given 30 days imprisonment.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. We are often captives outside the sanctuary of the home and subject to objectionable speech. The ability of government to shut off discourse solely to protect others from hearing it is dependent upon a showing that substantial privacy interests are being invaded in an essentially intolerable manner.

    Facts. On April 26, 1968, the Appellant was observed in the Los Angeles County Courthouse, in the corridor outside the municipal court, wearing a jacket bearing the words “Fuck the Draft.” At the time, there were women and children present in the area. After the Appellant was arrested, he testified that he wore the jacket as a means of informing the public of the depth of his feelings against the Vietnam War and the draft. The Appellant did not engage in, or threaten to engage in, nor did anyone as the result of his conduct in fact commit or threaten to commit any act of violence. The Appellant did not make any loud or unusual noise, nor was there any evidence that he uttered any sound prior to his arrest.

    Issue. Whether California can excise, as “offensive conduct,” one particular scurrilous epithet from the public discourse, either upon the theory that its use is inherently likely to cause violent reaction or upon a more general assertion that the States, acting as guardians of public morality, may properly remove this offensive word from the public vocabulary?

    Held. Absent a more particularized and compelling reason for its actions, the State may not, consistent with the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution (Constitution), make the simple public display here involved of this single four-letter expletive a criminal offense.

    Dissent. The Appellant’s absurd and immature antic was mainly conduct and little speech.

    Discussion. The majority began its decision by stating that the Appellant’s conduct was neither obscene nor within the purview of fighting words. Further, the court compared the Appellant’s jacket to loud noises emitted by sound trucks blaring outside citizens’ homes. The court found that, at least with respect to the Appellant’s jacket, the message that was conveyed could be easily averted by simply looking in another direction. Finally, the court stated that if they were to determine that the particular word at issue in this case is not protected, there may be a problem with determining what, in the future, is also not protected.


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