A 19-year-old department store worker expressed his opposition to the Vietnam War by wearing a jacket emblazoned with “FUCK THE DRAFT. STOP THE WAR” The young man, Paul Cohen, was charged under a California statute that prohibits “maliciously and willfully disturb[ing] the peace and quiet of any neighborhood or person [by] offensive conduct.” Cohen was found guilty and sentenced to 30 days in jail.
In an opinion by Justice John Marshall Harlan, the Court reasoned that the expletive, while provocative, was not directed toward anyone; besides, there was no evidence that people in substantial numbers would be provoked into some kind of physical action by the words on his jacket. Harlan recognized that “one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.” In doing so, the Court protected two elements of speech: the emotive (the expression of emotion) and the cognitive (the expression of ideas).
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Cohen v. California. (n.d.). Oyez. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://www.oyez.org/cases/1970/299