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Do You Have the Right to Flip Off Cops?

By Edward Tan, JD | Last updated on

Let's face it, a lot of people dislike cops. Alright, that's not entirely true. There are a lot of good ones out there deserving of compliments. But when you run into bad ones, do you have the right to flip off cops?

It might sound like a silly question, but in other parts of the world, it's serious business. For instance, a woman in Dubai was recently jailed for a month and fined for flashing her middle finger at a cop.

But that was Dubai. America has to be much more liberal with its citizens' right to flip the bird at the boys in blue, right? The answer isn't exactly what you'd imagine, as a New Jersey man's lawsuit reveals.

The police have been known to arrest people who flip them off for disorderly conduct.

Disorderly conduct laws prevent people from doing things that disturb the peace, but which don't amount to a serious public danger. Public intoxication is an example of the types of acts citable. But these laws are usually broadly written enough to include almost any actions that "disturb the peace." This includes flipping off a cop.

Pretty much every state has a disorderly conduct law in their books. Even so, the question of whether you can be arrested by cops under this law for asking them to read between the lines is a little murky.

Take the 26-year-old man who was arrested last summer for giving the middle finger to police outside a Greenwich Village bar. He recently filed a lawsuit against the city, arguing his First Amendment were violated, the New York Post reports.

Robert Bell, a New York financial services recruiter who lives in Edison, N.J., was leaving the Slaughtered Lamb Pub on West 4th Street about 10 p.m. Aug. 6, 2011, when three officers walked past him, legal documents showed. With the officers' backs to him, Bell raised his middle finger for "one to two seconds," the complaint states.

After his arrest and detainment, Bell decided to file the suit -- which charges police with violating the Constitution, assault, false arrest and imprisonment, and inflicting emotional distress -- because he thought he had been wronged, his attorney Robert Quackenbush said.

Both the Supreme Court and lower courts have ruled that giving cops the finger is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment. Along the same vein, swearing and any other profane speech directed at law enforcement is also protected.

So if flashing the middle finger is protected by the Constitution, why are people getting arrested?

The reason is because disorderly conduct laws generally give cops broad discretion to decide what is and is not disorderly. This means officers can still ruin your day by giving you a ticket and forcing you to go to court to contest it.

Bottom line, you do have a constitutional right to flip off cops. But anyone with good sense probably shouldn't exercise it.

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