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Is It Illegal To Give ‘The Finger’?

feldman_amy Amy Feldman
Amy E. Feldman is a business commentator and legal business...
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By Amy E. Feldman

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) - If you wave to a police officer with only one finger, can you be arrested for it?

A New York man, angry about a speed trap, extended his middle finger to the police officer to express his displeasure. The police officer, who apparently has never visited a playground, or watched TV, or had any human interaction, said that he interpreted the gesture as a sign that perhaps there might be a domestic dispute in the car and went to see if he could provide help. And by help, I mean, arrest him for disorderly conduct. The motorist sued, claiming that arresting him for expressing his displeasure was a violation of his civil rights.

Is it your legal right to flip a policeman the bird?

The First amendment protects your freedom of expression, even rude expression. But there are limits. You can’t use your words to incite violence – gestures either – those are fighting words. In general, the gesture isn’t likely to cause a reasonable person to start fighting, but if you couple it with aggressive movement, it could lead to your arrest.

And there are limits on obscene speech but while course, rude, and your mother would tell you, low class, the middle finger isn’t usually meant as a sexual gesture. So it’s not obscene by legal standards.

So, as the motorist found out, you really shouldn’t be arrested for your one fingered salute, that doesn’t mean it won’t cost you legal fees to win a case you could have avoided just by being civil.

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