Symbolic Speech

Sixth Circuit: A Raised Middle Finger Is Free Speech

Traffic stop
Cop at traffic stop

Giving the middle finger is protected speech under the First Amendment, a federal appeals court ruled.

In a 3-0 decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit sided with a Michigan woman who sued a police officer for violating her constitutional rights after he pulled her over and gave her a speeding ticket for making “an all-too-familiar gesture” toward him “with her hand and without four of her fingers showing.”

“Fits of rudeness or lack of gratitude may violate the Golden Rule,” Judge Jeffrey Sutton wrote in the opinion.  “But that doesn’t make them illegal or for that matter punishable or for that matter grounds for a seizure.”

In June 2017, Debra Cruise-Gulyas was pulled over by Taylor Police Officer Matthew Minard for speeding. Minard gave her a ticket for a non-moving violation, a lenient offense. But as Cruise-Gulyas drove away, she raised her middle finger at Minard. The officer pulled her over again, escalating her initial ticket to a more serious violation.

Cruise-Gulyas sued, claiming that Minard violated her constitutional rights under the First and Fourth Amendment when he pulled her over a second time and issued her a new ticket.

The two separate stops were an important distinction to the court, which noted that the traffic infraction ended when the first stop concluded, leaving Cruise-Gulyas’s gesture as the potential—and unjustified—cause for the second stop. 

“Any reasonable officer would know that a citizen who raises her middle finger engages in speech protected by the First Amendment,” the court wrote.

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