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Cohen v. California

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

Brief Fact Summary.

Defendant was convicted of disturbing the peace through offensive conduct under California law. Defendant challenged his conviction, arguing it violated the First Amendment.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Absent a more particularized and compelling reason for its actions, the state may not, consistently with the First and 14th Amendments, make the simple public display of a single four-letter word expletive a criminal offense.


Defendant wore a jacket bearing “Fuck the Draft” into a Los Angeles courthouse. Women and children were present. 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. Defendant was convicted under a California statute that prohibited malicious, willful disturbance of the peace or quiet of any neighborhood or person by offensive conduct. He challenged his conviction under the First Amendment, arguing his constitutional rights were violated.


Whether a state criminalize the simple public display of a single four-letter expletive.


No. A state may not criminalize the simple public display of a single four-letter expletive.


Justice Blackmun

Defendant’s action were nothing more than an absurd and immature antic, amounting to mainly conduct and little speech.


How is one to distinguish this from any other offensive word? Governmental officials cannot make principled distinctions in this area, leaving it to a matter of taste and style. Additionally, it is well illustrated here that much linguistic expression serves a dual communication function, conveying both ideas and emotions.

To find otherwise would allow governments an opportunity to censor particular words as a convenient guise for banning the expression of unpopular views. Judgment reversed.

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