Our view: Free speech also protects vulgar acts

Shane Boor, 35, apparently has a low opinion of the police. As he drove to work in Colorado in April, he saw a state trooper who had pulled over a car. As Boor passed by, he flipped the trooper the bird.

We all know it is unlawful to assault a police officer. But is it a crime to insult an officer, by raising one’s middle finger? The Colorado State Patrol thought so, at first.

After Boor arrived at work, a colleague of the insulted trooper showed up at Boor’s place of employment. The trooper questioned Boor and slapped him with a criminal summons to appear in court on a charge of criminal harassment. If convicted, Boor faced up to six months in jail.

Flipping off a cop is ignorant and rude. Cops, especially while performing traffic stops on highways, have dangerous and difficult jobs. We need them. We should probably salute them, rather than flip them off for protecting our safety. By flipping off a cop, one invites conflict.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado took up Boor’s defense.

“Our client engaged in peaceful, silent symbolic expression that is protected by First Amendment,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU legal director. “The protection of the Constitution is not limited to speech that is acceptable in polite society. The First Amendment also protects expression that may be disrespectful, coarse or even vulgar. It’s rude to flip off a cop, but it’s not a crime.”

The ACLU was 100 percent correct in this case. We don’t need the First Amendment to protect polite speech that is amenable to all listeners. We need the First Amendment to protect expression that offends. It is not a crime to express a vulgar insult, even toward a cop, and it seems apparent that the state patrol has come around to see it this way. Friday, after the ACLU stepped up to Boor’s defense, the agency asked that charges be dropped.

The case against Boor was no less ignorant than Boor’s “silent symbolic expression.” Cops are supposed to uphold the law, which means they must uphold and respect a person’s right to vulgar expression.

The wrongful charges arose because one man opted to act with a lack of restraint. The United States is a culture of freedom that requires self-control for the preservation of the liberties the ACLU defends.

As stated in the Principles of Freedom this newspaper defends: “Freedom is neither license nor anarchy. It is self-control. No more, no less. It must be consistent with the truths expressed in such great moral guides as the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule and the Declaration of Independence.”

When civil liberties — including speech — are used outside of the boundaries of self-control and civility, freedom gets challenged. That’s what the charge against Boor represented. It was a challenge to freedom, invited by a man who lacked self control. Cool heads prevailed, but Boor is no hero for starting this silly conflict, subjecting First Amendment rights to the mercy of an imperfect criminal justice system.