UPDATED: 2019/03/18 5:00 PM
When it comes to free speech, most people will still likely avoid giving a police officer the middle finger. However, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has ruled that this vulgar gesture is actually a protected form of free speech. This news comes on the heels of a woman giving the middle finger to a police officer who had pulled her over in June 2017.
The woman in question, Debra L. Cruise-Gulyas, was pulled over by a police officer after she was caught driving over the legal speed limit. Instead of slapping her with the usual speeding ticket, the officer, Matthew W. Minard, wrote her a non-moving violation ticket. This type of ticket is less serious than a speeding ticket.
Instead of showing gratitude for the reduction in the ticket, Ms. Cruise-Gulyas gave officer Minard the middle-finger salute as she drove away. After this exchange, officer Minard again pulled her over and changed her violation to be more serious—a speeding ticket.
However, the judges who were ruling over this case have determined that while officer Minard was justified in pulling her over for the first stop (and indeed would have been justified in giving her a speeding ticket), he was not authorized to pull her over a second time because Ms. Cruise-Gulyas did not commit a second infraction. Once the first traffic stop concluded, Mr. Cruise-Gulyas was well within her rights to make such a gesture. Thus, after officer Minard pulled her over a second time, Ms. Cruise-Gulyas claimed this was ground for a lawsuit, stating that Officer Minard violated her First Amendment right of freedom of speech.
Professor Joanna C. Schwartz, a professor of law at the University of California, believes that cases like this are important for bringing attention to police misconduct as well as what our Constitution does and does not prohibit. So, while the middle-finger salute may be offensive, it isn’t illegal.