A Sticky Issue


Across the nation, that bastion of individual expression, the automobile bumper, is falling to the forces of state intervention.

Last fall, the Florida legislature enacted a law proscribing "any sticker on a car that has obscene descriptions for obscene use or purporting to be for obscene use." Lawmakers in Illinois are planning to follow suit, and in South Carolina a bill prohibiting obscene bumper stickers was approved recently by the the state Senate and is being considered by the House.

Supporters of such legislation make no bones about their motivation. They want to ban certain types of bumper stickers because they don't like them.

"I'm offended by the bumper stickers I read, and I'm particularly offended if I have my grandchildren in my car," says T.T. Mappus Jr., cosponsor of the South Carolina House bill. "I've wanted to get out and scrape it off, but I know that it is not within my right to get out and scrape a bumper sticker off somebody's car." So Mappus wants to force the drivers themselves to scrape the stickers off, under the threat of a $200 fine.

Among the messages cited during discussion of the ban were the pithy-but-ambiguous "Shit Happens" and double entendres playing on the nickname of the University of South Carolina Gamecocks.

John Land, author of the South Carolina Senate bill, says offensive bumper stickers are particularly problematic. "You can turn away from a t-shirt, you can turn away from a billboard. [But] to comply with the law and keep a proper outlook, if the car in front of you has an obscene bumper sticker on it, you can't turn your head away from it."

Land admits the bill raises free-speech issues. "I was surprised it went through the Senate without somebody voicing constitutional objections to it," he says, acknowledging the difficulty of determining what is obscene. "I reckon we will have the same problem with that that the federal courts have always had."

Land is comfortable relying on local authorities to divine and apply the "community standards" that must be consulted in finding bumper stickers obscene. "I think it goes back to good judgment," he says. "I think most of our officers have that, and you have the protection of the trial system. I think the jurors and judges will recognize those messages that really serve no useful purpose."

Despite Land's faith in local magistrates and juries, his bill and others like it could open the door to police harassment of motorists who dare to walk the fine—some would say, invisible—line between the merely offensive and the obscene. The judicial system may see no substantive distinction between "The Ayatollah Eats Shit" and "George Bush Eats Shit," but an overworked sheriff's deputy or state trooper just might.