While driving down the road, a man was confused as to what he had done wrong when a Tennessee police officer pulled him over. However, he was soon left in disbelief when the officer wrote him out a ticket for having a “patently offensive” window sticker on his truck.
Nicholas Ennis was cruising in his pickup when he suddenly spotted the sight that causes all of our stomachs to drop. The Tennessee native pulled over as far as possible for the police SUV flashing its lights in his rear-view mirror.
Immediately, Ennis racked his brain for any traffic or vehicle violation he might have made but came up with nothing. After rolling down his window for the Sumner County Sheriff’s deputy, Ennis was taken aback to find that the stop was all because of his window decal.
On the rear-side window of Ennis’ truck is a bright green sticker with an M16 rifle followed by the letters “U” and “C” and enclosed by an AK-47. Below are the words “Gun Control.” It was this message that prompted the deputy to write a ticket and issue Ennis a fine.
According to WKRN, the sheriff’s deputy cited Tenn. Code 55-8-187, which prohibits “obscene or patently offensive bumper stickers, window signs, etc.” Ennis was ordered to pay a $50 fine, but he is determined to fight the ticket in court, invoking his First Amendment rights.
“I mean… not to me… looking at it, no. You wouldn’t be able to tell,” Ennis said, “It was made that way so it wouldn’t be vulgar, so I wouldn’t get in trouble for it, but they’re saying it is. I feel like I was singled out and it’s going against my first amendment right for freedom of speech.”
Ennis added that he’s had the sticker on his truck for more than a year without any issues. In fact, he pointed to his cousin’s boyfriend, Sam Monaghan, who has two of the same decals on his jeep and has never been ticketed.
“I don’t see an F or K on there at all, I see two guns,” Sam Monaghan told News 2.
The Sumner County Sheriff dismisses Ennis’ claim that the First Amendment covers such offensive language, arguing that the nature of the sticker is grounds for violation. However, according to distinguished UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, the deputy is the one in the wrong.
Professor Volokh writes that, while the code does ban “patently offensive” and “obscene” stickers, they are defined as “that which goes substantially beyond customary limits of candor in describing or representing” certain sexual matters. In Ennis’ case, the vulgar word in this particular context doesn’t qualify as the lawful definition of obscene.
The [statute] will not reach bumper stickers that are in extremely poor taste but are not obscene [under the Supreme Court’s obscenity precedents]. For example, bumper stickers such as “s..t happens,” although unquestionably in poor taste, do not meet the constitutional or statutory standards for obscenity because they do not appeal to the prurient interest. Consequently, they cannot be banned as obscene.
Volokh cited several court cases to prove that Ennis’ sticker is free speech. In Cunnigham v. State (Georgia), a “S**t Happens” sticker was ruled as constitutionally protected. In Cohen v. California, a jacket with the words “F*** the Draft” was also ruled to be within the protection of the First Amendment.
This is not … an obscenity case. Whatever else may be necessary to give rise to the States’ broader power to prohibit obscene expression, such expression must be, in some significant way, erotic. It cannot plausibly be maintained that this vulgar allusion to the Selective Service System would conjure up such psychic stimulation in anyone likely to be confronted with Cohen’s crudely defaced jacket.
As offensive as Ennis’ sticker might be, the First Amendment was specifically designed to protect offensive speech, whether directed toward other individuals, ideas, or institutions, since, of course, inoffensive speech needs no protection. Knowing that offensiveness is defined by whoever is in power at the time, our forefathers placed these checks and balances in our Constitution.
For now, Ennis plans to retain a lawyer and fight the ticket, no matter how paltry the fine is. For him, it’s about principle and protecting the rights of others who might find themselves in similar situations.