Home / Insights / Here We Go Again… Is Flipping the Bird Protected by the First Amendment?

Here We Go Again… Is Flipping the Bird Protected by the First Amendment?

by | May 23, 2019 | First Amendment, Media Law

Are you getting a sense of déjà vu just reading the headline? Maybe that’s because of this story we blogged about previously. Or even this one — which we dealt with twice!

Well, our current story of flipping the bird does not involve a religious sermon or the Commander-in-Chief. Instead, we have an angry woman and a thin-skinned police officer.

Back in June of 2017, Michigan police officer Matthew Minard stopped Debra Cruise-Gulyas for speeding. He initially gave her a ticket only for a lesser violation. However, as she drove off, Ms. Cruise-Gulyas felt she had to have the last word and she flipped him off.

Officer Minard proceeded to pull her over again. This time, he did give her a speeding ticket. She responded by suing him for violating her rights, arguing that you cannot charge someone with a more serious offense because they flip the bird at you.

The officer fought back against the suit, arguing that he was protected by qualified immunity, but the panel of judges for the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. Writing the panel opinion, Judge Jeffrey Sutton said, “Fits of rudeness or lack of gratitude may violate the golden rule… But that doesn’t make them illegal or for that matter punishable or for that matter grounds for a seizure.”

Basically, if Officer Minard acted as Ms. Cruise-Gulyas described, he was violating both her First Amendment and Fourth Amendment rights (to free speech and freedom from unreasonable seizure).

I have to agree with the law on this latest bird sighting. A police officer should not be able to arrest, charge, or cite you just because you make them angry or show disrespect. At the same time, our police officers put up with a lot of grief and deserve our respect. In this case, after all, the office initially showed leniency. Seems to me that deserved a thank you, not “bird” you.


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