Robert Bell of New Jersey is ready to carry the torch for freedom lovers everywhere. After leaving the Slaughtered Lamb Pub on West 4th Street one night last August, the 26-year-old financial services recruiter raised his middle finger for “one to two seconds” to a group cops who had just passed him, only another cop a few paces behind spotted Bell’s bird and arrested him, DNA Info reports. They charged Bell with disorderly conduct for making an “obscene gesture” and causing public alarm and annoyance. He pleaded not guilty in October 2011 and the case was dismissed when the charging officer failed to show at the hearing. Now, Bell is suing the city, and he actually has some law on his side.
But first, here’s the very straightforward reason Bell gave cops for why he gave them the finger: “Because I don’t like cops.”
In 2009, Pennsylvania man David Hackbart, along with the American Civil Liberties union, sued the city of Pittsburgh in federal court for violating his First Amendment right to free speech when an officer cited him for disorderly conduct after Hackbart gave another driver and then the officer the middle finger. The judge wrote in that case:
Hackbart, in this instance, was expressing his frustration and anger when he gestured with his middle finger to both the driver behind him and to [Sergeant] Elledge. Both gestures are protected expressions under the First Amendment, unless they fall within a narrowly limited category of unprotected speech such as obscene speech or fighting words.
Hackbart ended up with $50,000 from a settlement with the city. A number of similar cases came before Hackbart’s, as well as another notable one after, including the tale of Robert Ekas of Oregon, who was detained by a sheriff’s deputy after Ekas flipped him the bird at a traffic stop. Ekas eventually took a non-Hackbart-ean $4,000 in a settlement of his free speech claim, and was also featured as a “Difference Maker” on the Colbert Report.
It just so happens in the U.S. these days, it may not only be gratifying to give the cops the finger, but also profitable.