A woman from Fort Bend County, Texas has been threatened with arrest for a particular bumper sticker she chose to put on her truck. The sticker reads, “F-ck Trump and f-ck you for voting for him.” The woman, Karen Fonseca, was arrested as a result of an outstanding warrant for fraud. After her arrest, Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls posted a photo of Fonseca’s truck on Facebook. Along with the photo, he wrote, “I have received numerous calls regarding the offensive display on this truck as it is often seen along FM 359. If you know who owns this truck or it is yours, I would like to discuss it with you,” the post read. “Our Prosecutor has informed us she would accept Disorderly Conduct charges regarding it, but I feel we could come to an agreement regarding a modification to it.” After the sheriff posted the photo and accompanying comments, the story went viral. Countless folks passionately defended the bumper sticker as free speech. The sheriff claims that the objective of his post was simply to locate the owner/driver of the truck and to initiate a dialogue with her/him. He further claims that he wanted to prevent a “potential altercation” between the truck’s driver and those who may be offended by the message. The sheriff claims he removed the post solely because the owner of the truck had been identified. Fonseca said that she and her husband have had that bumper sticker for approximately a year and has no regrets for displaying it. She can’t believe that a simple sticker could cause so much “arousal.” (her words)
The first legal issue is whether Mrs. Fonseca could be arrested for displaying her bumper sticker. The answer is a definite, “Yes.” Whoa! Take a deep breath. I’m not suggesting in any way that the arrest would be lawful. I simply wanted to start the analysis with the uncomfortable and realistic thought that in many towns in this great land of ours lies law enforcement officers who would arrest someone for displaying this message. “Disorderly Conduct,” they call it. I call it, “Constitutionally protected speech.”
In the landmark case United States Supreme Court case “Cohen vs. California,” Cohen was prosecuted for wearing a jacket that contained the words, “F-ck the draft.” This was in 1971, during a very controversial time in American history. People had very strong feelings about the Vietnam War and accompanying issues. In overturning his criminal conviction, the Court ruled that Cohen’s jacket didn’t break any statutes because it wasn’t likely to incite violence. Applying the Cohen case to the ‘F-ck Trump’ case yields the same legal conclusion. The sticker, while equally controversial in that small conservative town, is constitutionally protected speech.
Judge Myron H. Thompson wrote in his decision in the case of Baker vs. Glover, “For those citizens without wealth or power, a bumper sticker may be one of the few means available to convey a message to a public audience.” There’s been no shortage of controversial messages conveyed on bumper stickers. Whether it be, “Abortion Stops a Beating Heart”, “Hillary For Prison” or “Screw P.E.T.A”, all of these messages are arguably controversial, yet protected by the first amendment, affording the messenger the power to convey a message to the public.
The Fort Bend County prosecutor has analyzed the case and fortunately, determined that no criminal charges will be filed over the ‘F-ck Trump’ sticker. That is the right legal decision under the circumstances. By protecting even the most offensive and outrageous speech, we ensure that our free speech rights are preserved.