Giving a police officer the middle finger is perfectly legal and is free speech protected by the First Amendment, a federal court ruled this week. That means that a Michigan police officer who ticketed a woman who gave him the finger had her constitutional rights violated, NPR News reports.
Back in 2017, Debra Cruise-Gulyas was pulled over for speeding by Officer Matthew Minard, identified by The Detroit Free Press as coming from the Taylor, Michigan Police Department. Minard, for reasons that are unclear, gave Cruise-Gulyas a lesser, nonmoving violation rather than the more serious speeding ticket.
When the stop was finished and Cruise-Gulyas was free to leave, she left Minard with a parting shot, so to speak. In her lawsuit, she says she “made an all-too-familiar gesture at [Officer Matthew] Minard with her hand and without four of her fingers showing.”
Minard pulled her over again, this time giving her a speeding ticket instead of (or on top of) the original nonmoving violation.
Cruise-Gulyas sued, saying that the act was a violation of her First Amendment rights to free speech.
This week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled that being naughty is not in and of itself a violation of any law.
“Fits of rudeness or lack of gratitude may violate the Golden Rule. But that doesn’t make them illegal or for that matter punishable.”
The court also ruled that Minard “should have known better.”
Minard, for his part, argued that he did Cruise-Gulyas a solid, and when she was recalcitrant, he changed his mind. He also argued that there is precedent in the law enforcement process for taking back an offer to be nice in the case of an ornery perp. For example, he claimed that prosecutors can withdraw a plea deal if the defendant is behaving offensively.
The court, however, rejected that argument, saying that the whole situation was more like a situation where a judge issues a sentence, then changes his mind, and issues a harsher one after the fact because of something the defendant said. That’s illegal, says the court.
The ruling means that Cruise-Gulyas’ civil lawsuit against Minard can proceed.
Throughout the history of the Constitution, courts, including the Supreme one, have ruled that the First Amendment doesn’t protect obscenity. The problem, however, lies in what exactly constitutes “obscenity.” The middle finger, for what its worth, has generally passed such a constitutional test. For example, in 2013, Michigan businessman Alan Markovitz had a giant, bronze statue of the middle finger made, positioned it in his back yard so that it faces his ex-wife’s house, and lit it up. The ex-wife sued, but a court ruled that the monument is protected free speech.