Sunday 7 June 2020

an absurd and immature antic

With an albeit split but precedent-setting decision issued on this day in 1971, the Supreme Court of the United States of America overturned the charges of lower jurisdictions and absolved the defendant of the crime of disturbing the peace by his choice of attire while in the corridors of the Los Angeles Courthouse.   Three years prior, the then nineteen year old defendant, Paul Robert Cohen, was arrested for wearing a jacket that bore the words F*ck the Draft (see also here and here) when called to a hearing—Cohen removed the offending article when entering the courtroom and taking the stand, however.
The bailiff communicated this to the judge, whom had Cohen taken into custody after his testimony and arraigned. Arguing that his behaviour was provocative and calculated to shock by announcing his views on the war in Vietnam, the county court ruled that his wardrobe choice was below the minimum threshold of civility and not suitable for public view. The case was elevated and the California Supreme Court concluded that neither itself or the lower courts were competent to determine what language was suitable for public consumption without overstepping their powers and trouncing on rights of free speech and referred the matter to the national high court to decide. Despite the chief justice instructing his associates that it would not be necessary to “dwell on the facts”—in effect, an order to censor the wording on the jacket, which was immediately ignored, and the dissenting argument characterising the provocation as the above and thus not a form of protected speech, the case was ruled in favour of Cohen, enshrining the right to express such sentiments and to not have them silenced and suppressed prima facie.