40 Years of ‘Cohen v. California’

June 7, 2011

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Cohen v. California. In Cohen, the Court overturned, on First Amendment grounds, the conviction of a Vietnam War protester arrested for entering a county courthouse wearing a jacket emblazoned with the words “Fuck the Draft.”

As David Hudson of the First Amendment Center writes:

The Court’s 5-4 ruling in Cohen v. California cleared a wider field for freedom of speech in several ways. It limited the fighting-words doctrine, rejected application of the obscenity doctrine to profanity, emphasized that offensive speech deserves protection and warned against the prospect that the government could ban words to discriminate against unpopular views.

Indeed, FIRE frequently cites Cohen when writing to universities that have charged students with disciplinary offenses for using profanity or other offensive but protected speech. Among other things, the Court’s recognition that “one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric” has proven an important defense against universities’ attempts to prohibit speech simply because it offends the sensibilities of others.

As Hudson notes, “Cohen v. California is an important case to be celebrated whenever we reflect on the crucial importance of the First Amendment in our free society.”