Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Dirtiest Word?

In Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971), the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a man who wore a jacket with the slogan "eff the draft" written on it (the "eff" word was fully spelled out on the jacket). In this widely cited decision, the court found that the four-letter word, per se, was neither obscene nor amounted to "fighting words," and was therefore speech protected by the First Amendment. This is an important legal point often overlooked by censorship proponents, who incorrectly assume that the mere presence of tabooed words on a page can make it legal to restrict access to such expression. The courts say otherwise.
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.

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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.

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