David Hackbart was mad, and he wanted to show it, but he didn’t think he would end up in federal court protecting his right to a rude gesture and demanding that the city of Pittsburgh stop violating the First Amendment rights of its residents.
Hackbart, 34, was looking for a parking space on busy Murray Avenue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood on April 10, 2006. Spotting one, he attempted to back into it, but the driver of the car behind him refused to back up and give him sufficient room. Hackbart responded in the classic way. “I stuck my hand out the window and gave him the finger to say ‘Hey, jerk, thanks,’ ” says Hackbart. “That’s all I was trying to say — ‘Thanks, thanks a lot.’ ”
At that moment, a voice rang out telling Hackbart not to make the rude gesture in public. “So I was like, How dare that person tell me? They obviously didn’t see what happened. Who are they to tell me what to say?” he says. “So I flipped that person off. And then I looked, and it was a city of Pittsburgh cop in his car right next to me.”
That turned out to be police sergeant Brian Elledge, who happened to be passing in the other direction in his cruiser. Elledge whipped around and pulled Hackbart over, citing him under the state’s disorderly-conduct law, which bans obscene language and gestures. And here’s where the problem lies, says state American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) legal director Witold (Vic) Walczak: the middle finger and equivalent swear words are not legally obscene. In fact, courts have consistently ruled that foul language is a constitutionally protected form of expression. A famous 1971 Supreme Court case upheld the right of a young man to enter the Los Angeles County Court House wearing a jacket emblazoned with the words “F___ the Draft.”
… Walczak says this issue seems to have more to do with a police officer being confronted by an angry and disrespectful person and turning disorderly-conduct laws into a “contempt of cop” law, as he puts it. “Frankly, I think having someone dropping the F-bomb is better than resisting arrest or taking a swipe at a police officer,” Walczak says. “But what we’re seeing too often is that police who are offended by a lack of respect, often manifested by profanity or cursing, will punish people for that.”
We usually get the most angry when we are in the wrong and we are in denial about it. Flipping the bird in your mind or out of sight works fine. That same cop may save your life some day.