Cohen showed up at court
wearing a jacket with dirty words printed on it. He was arrested and
charged with disturbing the peace.
Cohen was quietly protesting
the Vietnam War. He didn't say anything out loud, make a ruckus, or
The California law
prohibited "maliciously and willfully disturbing the peace or quiet
of any neighborhood or person by offensive conduct."
Cohen was convicted of
disturbing the peace and sentenced to 30 days in jail. He appealed.
Cohen argued that the
California law was an unconstitutional violation of his 1st
Amendment right to free speech.
The Appellate Court upheld the
conviction. Cohen appealed.
The Appellate Court found
that the jacket constituted "offensive conduct" which they
defined as "behavior which has a tendency to provoke others to acts
of violence or to in turn disturb the peace."
The US Supreme Court
overturned the conviction and found the California law unconstitutional.
The US Supreme Court found
that it was a violation of the 1st Amendment to make the public display of a single
four-letter expletive a criminal offense, without a more specific and
compelling reason than a general tendency to disturb the peace.
Basically, this is the same
test used for all laws that infringe on constitutional rights. Namely,
is there a compelling government interest strong enough to justify the infringement?
In a dissent it was argued
that Cohen's actions were not 'speech' they were 'conduct', and 'conduct'
is not protected by the 1st Amendment.
Basically, this case said that
profane and indecent language is protected by the 1st
Amendment, and people are free to
swear as much as they want.
At least in certain mediums.
This right does not extend to swearing on television.
Communications Commn. v. Pacifica Foundation (438 U.S. 726 (1978)).