Woman contends profane bumper sticker is protected speech

Friday, November 5, 1999

A Florida woman charged with violating a state law banning obscene bumper stickers says the First Amendment protects her explicit message.

In September, a state trooper in Orlando stopped Laura Elizabeth Barron for a traffic offense. During the stop, the trooper noticed Barron's bumper sticker stating “F— you, you f—ing f—.” The trooper then charged Barron with violating the obscene bumper sticker law.

In legal papers filed last week, Barron argues that the profane bumper sticker was “a form of protest against traffic conditions on the roads” and a message “against tailgaters.”

“A protest against tailgaters and traffic conditions could only be effectively achieved through the means chosen by Defendant Barron to express such message,” the papers say.

Barron's attorney Lawrence Walters says the statute is unconstitutional. “My client was punished for pure speech,” he said. “My client engaged in an important message of protest. The statement has literary value because it is a form of alliteration and an expression of road rage against traffic conditions.

“I think this case is a slam-dunk under Cohen v. California,” Walters said.

In Cohen v. California, Paul Cohen was charged with disturbing the peace for wearing a jacket with the message “F— the Draft” in a courthouse. The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the conviction on First Amendment grounds in 1971, writing “one man's vulgarity is another's lyric.”

The high court in Cohen wrote that 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.”

Walters says the Cohen case provides Barron with an “absolute constitutional defense.”

He notes that the profanity on the bumper sticker cannot be considered legally obscene “because the expletive could in no way conjure up a sexual image.”

Walters notes that other courts have struck down similar laws. In State v. Cunningham, the Georgia Supreme Court struck down a bumper sticker law that prohibited profane messages. The state high court invalidated the conviction of a man who displayed a “S— Happens” bumper sticker. In Baker v. Glover, a federal district court in Alabama struck down a similar law in dismissing the conviction for the bumper sticker containing the words “Eat S—.”

“This was a clear violation of my client's civil rights,” Walters said.

A state circuit court judge is scheduled to hold a hearing in the case of State v. Barron on Nov. 19.

Calls placed to the assistant state attorney handling the case were not returned.