Thursday, November 14, 2013

Cohen v. California case brief

Cohen v. California case brief summary
403 U.S. 15 (1971)

Appellant sought review of an order of the Court of Appeals of California, Second Appellate District, which affirmed appellant's conviction under Cal. Penal Code § 415 of engaging in offensive conduct through the use of vulgar language.

Appellee argued that the four-letter expletive imprinted on appellant's jacket was "offensive conduct" that might provoke others to violence against appellant.


  • The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, noting that appellant did not engage in any act of violence, or make any loud noises, when he wore the jacket in the municipal courthouse as an expression of his feelings toward the Vietnam War and the draft. 
  • A conviction resting solely upon "speech" could be justified under the First and Fourteenth Amendment only for the manner that the freedom was exercised, but not for the content of the message. 
  • The Court observed that the statute was not limited to protecting courtroom decorum, nor directed at erotic messages, and the message did not consist of "fighting words," directed at readers of the message. 
  • That the message was thrust upon unsuspecting viewers, who were not captive and could avert their eyes, did not entitle appellee to protect the sensitive by curtailing all such speech. 
  • Moreover, no evidence demonstrated that anyone was prepared to strike out at whomever assaulted their sensibilities.
The order affirming appellant's conviction of engaging in offensive conduct through the use of vulgar language was reversed, because an expletive printed on appellant's jacket was not repugnant to constitutional speech protections, as no "fighting words" that were likely to prompt a reader to violence were involved, and restraints on offensive content of message was difficult to justify.

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