Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971)

During the Vietnam conflict/war, Paul Robert Cohen wore a (leather?) jacket bearing the words “Fuck the Draft” into the Los Angeles Municipal Court building. Upon entering an actual courtroom, however, he removed and folded his jacket over his arm. He again donned the jacket upon leaving the courtroom and a city officer thereupon arrested and charged him with violating California Penal Code § 415 which prohibited “maliciously and willfully disturb[ing] the peace or quiet of any neighborhood or person . . . by . . . offensive conduct. . . .” 

All California courts upheld Cohen’s conviction and the California Supreme Court declined to review the matter. However, the United States Supreme Court reversed upon finding that it “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.”

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