The New York Daily News reports:
A bigot named their WiFi signal “F— All Jews and N—-” — and now cops are investigating.
The hateful signal I.D. popped up on the iPhone of a 28-year-old mom inside a Teaneck, N.J. recreation center, where her 3-year-old daughter was attending dance class….
The Teaneck Police Department Juvenile Bureau and the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office Computer Crime Unit are investigating it as a “possible bias crime,” Wilson said.
It should go without saying that the WiFi guy is scum, but scum have First Amendment rights, too. He has the First Amendment right to put up a sign in his window saying “Fuck All Jews and Niggers” — or burn a flag on his front lawn, or display blasphemous images where others might see them — though such speech would be understandably offensive to neighbors and passersby. Likewise, he has the right to attach such a name to his WiFi network, even though the name would be visible to neighboring WiFi users.
UPDATE: A commenter suggested that “fuck” could be banned as an “obscenity.” Not so, said the Court in Cohen v. California (1971) (holding that the wearing of a “Fuck the Draft” jacket may not be banned on such grounds). Another suggested that the words are punishable “fighting words.” But as cases such as Cohen and Gooding v. Wilson (1972) have made clear, speech can be punished as fighting words only if it is reasonably likely to lead to an immediate attack by a personally offended listener against the speaker; no such attack is likely when the speaker is not physically present, and can’t be readily identified even by those who want to immediately go and seek him out.
Another commenter suggested that the FCC has extra authority to regulate such speech, under FCC v. Pacifica Foundation (1978). I don’t think so. First, though the Pacifica decision is quite vague, it focused on traditional radio broadcasting and I doubt that it would be applicable to wireless network names (even if it is survives the Court’s reconsideration of the issue in the pending FCC v. Fox Television Stations case). Second, if the objection is to the racism and anti-Semitism and not just the word “fuck,” that would run afoul of the Pacifica plurality’s acknowledgment that “if it is the speaker’s opinion that gives offense, that consequence is a reason for according it constitutional protection”; viewpoint-neutral restrictions on vulgarity on radio broadcasting are constitutionally permissible, the Court held, but viewpoint-based bans on bigoted speech would not be. And, third and most important, Pacifica rested heavily on the FCC’s special authority in the area — and, to my knowledge, there is no FCC regulation restricting vulgar WiFi network names, and in any event that does not seem to be the legal avenue that the local police department seems to be pursuing.