Are Offensive Bumper Stickers Illegal?
Like most legal questions, whether your state government considers an offensive bumper sticker illegal depends on the details. Generally though, as long as the bumper sticker isn't obscene, pornographic, or blocking your view, then it's likely covered under the First Amendment's free speech protections.
Unfortunately, figuring out what is obscene isn't as easy as figuring out what's offensive (typically left to individual preference). As a result, unbelievable news stories pop up about people (okay maybe just one guy from Florida) with their cars adorned with the phrase "I EAT A--" getting arrested for refusing to remove it. Yes, that really happened to one Florida man who thought it'd be funny to adorn his pickup with a window decal sharing TMI with the world.
Can You Legally Put Curse Words on Your Car?
While parents may rue the day their children see that window decal and have to answer the "What does that mean?" question, the criminal charges against Dillon Webb were dropped at the first sign he was contesting it. Webb fired back with a lawsuit of his own, which is still working its way through the courts. Webb was actually arrested after he refused an officer's order to remove the last S from his "I EAT A--" window decal.
This story isn't so unusual, believe it or not. Not too long ago, big headlines were made after one man played a joke on his brother, and applied a crude depiction of stick figures having sex, along with the phrase "Making my family" underneath, to the back window of his brother's car. While that's a pretty funny joke between brothers, the younger brother got pulled over for it by the cops while driving in Tennessee. But just like in Webb's case, after lawyering up, things changed.
It's Called Free Speech for a Reason
When it comes to bumper stickers, the legal landscape is littered with judicial rulings upholding Americans' First Amendment rights to say what's on their mind.
"For those citizens without wealth or power, a bumper sticker may be one of the few means available to convey a message to a public audience," wrote U.S. District Court Judge Myron Thompson in the 1991 case Baker v. Glover, standing up for an Alabama truck driver with the sticker "How's My Driving? Call 1-800-EAT-S---."
In Georgia, a man was fined for his "S--- Happens" bumper sticker. In overturning the fine, the Georgia Supreme Court cited the 1971 U.S. Supreme Court ruling of Cohen v. California, which overturned a breach-of-peace conviction for a man who wore a "F--- the Draft" jacket to a courthouse.
"The peace of society is not endangered by the profane or lewd word which is not directed at a particular audience," wrote the court in its 1991 Cunningham v. State decision.
When it comes to license plates, states have a bit more discretion when it comes to preventing curse words and other lewd sayings. However, a recent federal court ruling in California could also signal a sea change there.
Can You Put a Sticker On Your Windshield?
Curiously, while states may not be able to restrict the messages people share on their bumpers, even if it includes vulgar language, states can certainly restrict how that message is displayed in various ways. One common state law involves a ban on placing stickers on the windshield and rear window of the car. Typically, most states' laws will prohibit blocking more than a tiny portion of a car's windshield with stickers or decals.
Notably though, if you are considering putting an offensive message on your car, you might want to think twice as it may make it more likely you'll be pulled over for other reasons, or harassed by those who don't like that message, or believe it's inappropriate.
Can You Have Police-Related Stickers?
Many people like to put bumper stickers or window decals on their cars that show support for police officers. (Some also do this because they think these stickers will help them avoid traffic tickets.)
There is nothing illegal about having a "thin blue line" sticker on your car. However, it's also important to avoid any stickers that could indicate that you are a police officer, because impersonating law enforcement is illegal. Additionally, you should make sure your state allows you to display a Fraternal Order of Police sticker. This can be illegal in Florida, for example.
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- Think Twice Before Advertising on Your Car (FindLaw's Free Enterprise)
- 'Unmarked Police Car' Bumper Sticker Leads to Traffic Stop, Lawsuit (FindLaw's Legally Weird)
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