Is it unlawful to wear clothing bearing words such as ‘police’ or ‘sheriff’?
There is no clear-cut answer to this question. There is no U.S. Supreme Court case specifically addressing whether civilians can be penalized for wearing law enforcement apparel. However, the Court has dealt with the issue of unauthorized wearing of military uniforms. In the case Schacht v. United States, 398 U.S. 58 (1970), an actor in a peaceful antiwar demonstration was arrested and convicted under a federal statute which makes it a crime for any person to wear the uniform, or a distinctive part of the uniform, of any of the U.S. armed forces without authority. The Court acknowledged that, when considered on its own, the law was valid and that the government could regulate who could wear such uniforms. However, the conviction was overturned because another statute authorized a person to wear a military uniform when portraying a member of the military in a theatrical or motion-picture production only if the portrayal did not tend to discredit the armed forces. This was considered a content-based restriction on speech, which is unconstitutional.
The next place to look for an answer to this question would be the lower courts. For instance, in 1996, the Arizona Court of Appeals upheld a Phoenix city ordinance which prohibited the unauthorized use of a public officer’s insignia on clothing. In Arizona v. McLamb, 932 P. 2d 266, the appeals court found the ordinance to be content-neutral, in that it “neither attempts to regulate or restrict the content of the defendant’s expression, nor is it directed at the communicative aspect of the defendant’s conduct.” The court also found that the city of Phoenix had a legitimate interest in regulating the use of its official insignia.
However, in 2005, the Florida Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a state law that made it illegal for any unauthorized “individual to exhibit, wear, or display any indicia of authority … or to display in any manner or combination the word or words ‘police,’ ‘patrolman,’ [etc.] … which could deceive a reasonable person into believing that such item is authorized … .” In its decision in Sult v. State of Florida, the court ruled that the law was “unconstitutionally overbroad,” saying that “with no specific intent-to-deceive element, the [law] extends its prohibitions to innocent wearing and displaying of specified words.”
The wording of each state’s statute concerning the wearing of “indicia of authority” and, of course, the individual circumstances involved, will determine whether it is unlawful to wear such items.