The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Rebecca Panico (NJ.com) reports:
Roselle Park voluntarily dismissed its case in Superior Court on Tuesday against a borough homeowner who hung anti-President Biden flags with the f-word on her fence.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey was representing the homeowner, Patricia Dilascio, and her daughter, Andrea Dick, in their appeal to Superior Court in Union County. A municipal court judge earlier this month ruled the homeowner had violated a local obscenity ordinance and ordered them to remove the signs with the f-word—or else pay a $250-a-day fine.
Glad to hear it; I copy below what I wrote about the case two weeks ago.
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NJ.com (Rebecca Panico) reports (and includes the photo above):
Roselle Park Municipal Court Judge Gary Bundy ordered the Willow Avenue homeowner to remove the signs with profanity within a week or face a $250-a-day fine….
"This is not a case about politics. It is a case, pure and simple, about language," Bundy said. "This ordinance does not restrict political speech. Neither this town or its laws may abridge or eliminate Ms. Dilascio's freedom of speech. However, freedom of speech is not simply an absolute right. It is clear from state law and statutes that we cannot simply put up the umbrella of the First Amendment and say everything and anything is protected speech." …
The ordinance prohibits displaying "any obscene material, communication or performance or other article or item which is obscene within the Borough." It defines obscenity as material that depicts or describes sexual conduct or lacks any serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.
But Cohen's wearing his "Fuck the Draft" jacket was protected speech, and it's hard for me to see how the signs here are anything but. To quote Justice Harlan's opinion in Cohen,
First, the principle contended for by the State seems inherently boundless. How is one to distinguish this from any other offensive word? Surely the State has no right to cleanse public debate to the point where it is grammatically palatable to the most squeamish among us. Yet no readily ascertainable general principle exists for stopping short of that result were we to affirm the judgment below. For, while the particular four-letter word being litigated here is perhaps more distasteful than most others of its genre, it is nevertheless often true that one man's vulgarity is another's lyric. Indeed, we think it is largely because governmental officials cannot make principled distinctions in this area that the Constitution leaves matters of taste and style so largely to the individual.
Additionally, we cannot overlook the fact, because it is well illustrated by the episode involved here, that much linguistic expression serves a dual communicative function: it conveys not only ideas capable of relatively precise, detached explication, but otherwise inexpressible emotions as well. In fact, words are often chosen as much for their emotive as their cognitive force. We cannot sanction the view that the Constitution, while solicitous of the cognitive content of individual speech, has little or no regard for that emotive function which, practically speaking, may often be the more important element of the overall message sought to be communicated. Indeed, as Mr. Justice Frankfurter has said, "[o]ne of the prerogatives of American citizenship is the right to criticize public men and measures—and that means not only informed and responsible criticism but the freedom to speak foolishly and without moderation."
Finally, and in the same vein, we cannot indulge the facile assumption that one can forbid particular words without also running a substantial risk of suppressing ideas in the process. Indeed, governments might soon seize upon the censorship of particular words as a convenient guise for banning the expression of unpopular views. We have been able, as noted above, to discern little social benefit that might result from running the risk of opening the door to such grave results.
It is, in sum, our judgment that, absent a more particularized and compelling reason for its actions, the State may not, consistently with the First and Fourteenth Amendments, make the simple public display here involved of this single four-letter expletive a criminal offense.
On top of that, if the news story is correct that the defendant was being prosecuted solely under the "obscenity" ordinance, that ordinance just doesn't apply here: It defines "obscene" using the normal legal definition, rather than the lay definition that often covers vulgar words. Under that definition, the speech must basically be pornographic, appealing to the "prurient interest" in sex and depicting or describing sexual conduct; the word "fuck" here doesn't qualify; to quote Cohen again,
Whatever else may be necessary to give rise to the States' broader power to prohibit obscene expression, such expression must be, in some significant way, erotic. It cannot plausibly be maintained that this vulgar allusion to the Selective Service System [or, in this case, to President Biden -EV] would conjure up such psychic stimulation in anyone likely to be confronted with Cohen's crudely defaced jacket.