Cohen v. California — Freedom of Expression Protects Offensive Words

In Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the First Amendment prohibits states from criminalizing the public display of a single four-letter expletive, without a more specific and compelling reason than a general tendency to disturb the peace. The decision has been cited in numerous subsequent First Amendment cases.  Facts of Cohen v. California  Paul Robert Cohen was convicted in the Los Angeles Municipal Court of violating a provision of California Penal Code § 415 which prohibits “maliciously and willfully disturb[ing] the peace or quiet of any neighborhood or person . . . by . . . offensive conduct.” He was sentenced to 30 days imprisonment. As detailed by the Court, Cohen was arrested on April 26, 1968, after being observed in the Los Angeles County Courthouse in the corridor outside of a municipal court wearing a jacket bearing the words “Fuck the Draft,” which were…

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