Peter G (sinetimore) wrote,
Peter G

A Bird In The Hand

On March 24, 2009, an important victory for us 1st Amendment lovers happened.

A federal judge ruled that flipping the bird (giving the one-finger salute) was PROTECTED FREE SPEECH.

In April 2006, David Hackbart got into a squabble with another driver over a parking space.  He was attempting to parallel park when the other driver pulled behind him and blocked him from the space.  He flipped off the driver.  Officer Brian Elledge was on the scene, and told Hackbart not to do that.  Hackbart only heard the voice, he didn't see it was a cop, so he flipped him off, too.  Elledge cited Hackbart for disorderly conduct.  Hackbart decided to fight it on the grounds that it was Constitutionally protected Free Speech.  US District Judge David S. Cercone agreed.  "The United States Supreme Court has long recognized that non-verbal gestures and symbols may be entitled to First Amendment protection.  Moreover, several courts, including federal and state courts in Pennsylvania, have found that the expressive use of the middle finger is protected speech under the First Amendment.  Hackbart, in this instance, was expressing his frustration and anger when he gestured with his middle finger to both the driver behind him and to Elledge.  Both gestures are protected expressions under the First Amendment, unless they fall within a narrowly limited category of unprotected speech such as obscene speech or fighting words."  Furthermore, "the traffic stop was in retaliation for Hackbart's hand gesture toward Elledge," Cercone wrote. "Elledge admitted, however, that the hand gesture was neither illegal nor obscene."

A district judge initially found Hackbart guilty and fined him $119.75. Hackbart, obviously not one to take defeat easily, appealed, and the charges were withdrawn by the Allegheny County District Attorney's office.  Hackbart then sued Elledge and the city for "physical pain and suffering, emotional trauma, humiliation and distress." Cercone has granted Hackbart's claim against Elledge but not against the city.  According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, "Through his lawsuit, Elledge claimed Pittsburgh police issued 188 citations between March 2005 and October 2007 charging people with using profane language and/or "obscene" hand gestures. Hackbart claims the ordeal cost him $590 in court fees, lost wages and round-trip airfare from Tampa, Fla., to attend a court hearing. He is seeking to recover this money and an unspecified amount in damages."  So thanks to Cercone, the sides must decide whether to settle or go to trial (Thomas Burns of New Castle flipped off a road construction worker and was charged with disorderly conduct.  Considering some of the things I've heard road workers say to women passing by, I would think they'd be used to getting flipped off.  He settled his suit in October 2006, terms were not publicly disclosed).

So don't just hoist that flag!  Hoist that finger, high and proud!  And be glad that I didn't include the tag for "digital" rights.  ;-)
Tags: important life lessons, news
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