A Tennessee man says he’s going to fight a citation recently issued by a Sumner County sheriff’s deputy over an anti-gun control sticker on his truck. Nicholas Ennis says he’s been driving around for about a year with the sticker displayed, but it wasn’t until recently that he was told the sticker is “obscene”.
“I think my First Amendment rights have been violated because it’s not spelled out like he said on the ticket,” Ennis said. “That we should have the right to express our opinions, and the freedom of speech, and they’re trying to take it away, the constitutional right, they’re trying to take all that away from us, like American ain’t free no more.”
According to the Sumner County Sheriff’s Office, the sticker falls under a Tennessee law prohibiting “obscene obscene or patently offensive bumper stickers, window signs, etc.” The sticker in question, which features two rifles and the letters “u” and “c” above the phrase “gun control”, is a no-no because of the expletive spelled out with the firearms and the letters, or so says the sheriff.
UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, on the other hand, says it’s the citation that’s problematic, and says the attempt to police Ennis’s sticker is clearly unconstitutional.
But of course this is constitutionally protected, given the Court’s decision in Cohen v. California (1971) that a jacket bearing the words “Fuck the Draft” was constitutionally protected. Indeed, it’s not even barred by the relevant Tennessee statute (Tenn. Code § 55-8-187)“
The Tennessee statute cited by the deputy says something is “patently offensive” if it “goes substantially beyond customary limits of candor in describing or representing such matters.” Those “matters” are sexual in nature, which Volokh points out was at the heart of the Supreme Court’s decision in the free speech case Cohen v California. As Volokh notes, even the Tennessee Attorney General’s office issued an opinion a few years ago stating that the statute could not be used to target “stickers that are in extremely poor taste but are not obscene”. It’s a matter of personal opinion as to whether or not you find Ennis’ sticker to be in poor taste, but there’s no way it’s obscene.
Ennis could just pay the $50 fine, scrape the sticker off of his truck, and be done with the issue, but he says he’s going to be meeting with a lawyer this week and fighting the citation. He’ll undoubtably pay more in legal fees than what he’s facing in fines, but Ennis says there’s a principle at stake.
“I feel like I was singled out and it’s going against my first amendment right for freedom of speech,” Ennis said.
He’s not wrong about the attempt to chill speech, whether or not he was singled out for enforcement. I might not choose to put that window sticker on my ride, but that’s a matter of personal taste, not an issue for government involvement. I hope Nicholas Ennis gets a good attorney, and this sheriff’s office is reminded of the fact that speech we don’t like, even speech we may find offensive, is still protected under our 1st Amendment.