The Duluth News-Tribune reports:
A southwestern Wisconsin man is fighting a civil citation for bringing a sign that read “F U G W” with him as he watched President Bush pass through Platteville last week. . . .
According to [a court] motion, [Frank] Van den Bosch was standing along a street in Platteville on May 7 with his sign waiting for Bush’s motorcade to pass. . . . Van den Bosch then changed the sign to say “Free Us G W” and added “End the Occupation” on the back, referring to the war in Iraq.
A few minutes later, another police officer came over and ordered Van den Bosch to surrender the sign. Van den Bosch rolled up his sign and moved to the back of the crowd. He held it up as Bush went by.
Police then handcuffed him and took him to the police station, where he was photographed, fingerprinted, cited $243 for disorderly conduct and released. . . .
Platteville Police Lt. Tom Schmid said a business owner along the street had complained about the sign, and officers thought children might see it. Van den Bosch wrote the letters “r e e” and “s” in tiny print, Schmid said.
“We had to take some action,” Schmid said. “If we were wrong, then the citation will be voided and taken care of that way. That’s the way the system is supposed to work.”
Uh, no. Under the Fourth Amendment, it’s unconstitutional for the police to arrest someone unless they have probable cause to believe that he has committed a crime. Under the First Amendment, ever since Cohen v. California (1971) — which upheld Cohen’s right to wear a jacket with the words “Fuck the Draft” — signs containing profanity (even if “F U” were interpreted as a profanity) are constitutionally protected. Carrying such a sign thus can’t be a crime; and the police can have no probable cause to believe a crime is committed and thus no right to “take action” by arresting anyone.
The police have an obligation to act constitutionally themselves, and not just leave the matter to the courts (though the courts are of course there to double-check). And while this of course requires the police to know the law — which is to say the law as modified by the Constitution — that must be part of their training. Obviously the police department must teach the police what the law is, since otherwise the police can’t enforce it. If the department taught the officers that the law bans public profanity on signs, then it taught them wrong. Thirty years after Cohen, there’s no excuse for police departments to have their officers arrest people for carrying allegedly profane signs in public.
Thanks to Robert English for the pointer to the newspaper article.