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Middle Fingers and Free Speech: Who Can You Flip the Bird To, and When?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

Icons from Steve Jobs to Mike Ditka have done it; perhaps Johnny Cash did it best. There is something primeval about flipping the bird, like it was the first, finest, and most simple and complete insult we ever learned and we have yet to find one better. The middle finger's wordless punch transcends linguistic barriers and leaves no doubt as to its intent. It is speech, perfected. Does that make it perfectly legal?

In most cases, flipping the bird is considered free speech protected by the First Amendment. But the limits to that protection might surprise you:

Yes, You Can Flip Off the Cops

It may not seem like the wisest use of a hand gesture, but court after court has said that a raised middle finger to police officers doesn't rise to the level of a crime, or even reasonable suspicion that a person has committed one. So by all means, if you're feeling extraordinarily brave, show that cop a bird.

Yes, You Can Arrange Your Christmas Lights to Look Like a Middle Finger

Maybe you had enough of the neighbor's inflatable snowmen and full-size Santa-and-reindeer replica descending his chimney. Maybe it's time to stick it to the community organizing committee. Or maybe you're just not a holiday cheer kind of person. And federal courts have said that that's okay.

And -- WOW -- Yes, You Can Even Shoot Your Pastor the Bird

It turns out that standing and one-finger-saluting your church pastor mid-sermon doesn't qualify as disorderly conduct, at least according to the Georgia Supreme Court. Instead, the state statute only criminalizes fighting words or a true threat. Maybe they just didn't take this guy's middle finger seriously.

But No, You Can't Flip Off a Judge

File this one right above flipping off the cops on the Bad Idea Checklist. We don't know why you'd want to anger a judge presiding over your case, but you should know your free speech protections are curbed in court, by a little thing called contempt. Criminal contempt encompasses anything disrespecting the dignity of the court, and most judges are more than happy to the charge it any time that they feel threatened, and much happier if they feel insulted or ridiculed.

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