Cohen v. California Case Brief

Facts of the case

A 19-year-old department store worker expressed his opposition to the Vietnam War by wearing a jacket emblazoned with FUCK THE DRAFT. STOP THE WARThe young man, Paul Cohen, was charged under a California statute that prohibits maliciously and willfully disturb[ing] the peace and quiet of any neighborhood or person [by] offensive conduct.Cohen was found guilty and sentenced to 30 days in jail.

Why is the case important?

The Defendant, Cohen’s (Defendant) conviction, for violating a California law by wearing a jacket that had “f— the draft” on it was reversed by the Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) which held such speech was protected.

Question

Whether California can excise, as offensive conduct, one particular scurrilous epithet from the public discourse, either upon the theory of the court below that its use is inherently likely to cause violent reactions or upon a more general assertion that the states, acting as guardians of the public morality, may properly remove this offensive word from the public vocabulary?

ANSWER

No. Judgment of the lower courts reversed. Defendant’s speech is protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution). The only conviction that the state sought to punish was communication. Thus, this case rests solely upon “speech.” The state lacks power to punish Defendant for the content of his message because he showed no intent to incite disobedience to the draft. Thus, his conviction rests upon his exercise of the “freedom of speech” and can only be justified as a valid regulation of the manner in which he exercised that freedom. This is not an obscenity case because his message is not erotic. This case does not involve “fighting words” because his message is not directed at another person. Further, the public is free to avert their eyes from the distasteful message. His message constitutes emotive speech because it seeks to get our attention. This speech is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. Therefore, his conviction must b
e overturned.

CONCLUSION

The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, noting that appellant did not engage in any act of violence, or make any loud noises, when he wore the jacket in the municipal courthouse as an expression of his feelings toward the Vietnam War and the draft. A conviction resting solely upon speechcould be justified under the First and Fourteenth Amendment only for the manner that the freedom was exercised, but not for the content of the message. The Court observed that the statute was not limited to protecting courtroom decorum, nor directed at erotic messages, and the message did not consist of fighting words,directed at readers of the message. That the message was thrust upon unsuspecting viewers, who were not captive and could avert their eyes, did not entitle appellee to protect the sensitive by curtailing all such speech. Moreover, no evidence demonstrated that anyone was prepared to strike out at whomever assaulted their sensibilities.

  • Advocates: –
  • Appellant: Cohen
  • Appellee: California
  • DECIDED BY:Burger Court
  • Location: Corridors of Los Angeles Superior Court
Citation: 403 US 15 (1971)
Argued: Feb 22, 1971
Decided: Jun 7, 1971
Cohen v. California Case Brief