Facing a First Amendment lawsuit, Nashville police decided to drop its citation against a local man who received a $50 ticket for a tasteless bumper sticker of stick figures in sexual congress.
Tennessee law prohibits not only “obscene” bumper stickers but also “patently offensive” ones, using largely subjective standards. That law is so broad that it would likely be considered unconstitutional in court, one state lawmaker told Heat Street last month. But the Tennessee legislature doubled down on this restriction in 2011, raising the fine from $2 to $50.
Dustin Owens, who lives in nearby Hendersonville, filed suit last week after Nashville police issued him a ticket over a stick-figure bumper sticker his brother had slapped on his Chevy as a prank. It read, in Comic Sans font, “Making My Family.”
Owens’ attorneys argued that the bumper sticker couldn’t be considered “obscene”—“a narrow, unprotected category of speech reserved for hard-core pornography.” Furthermore, they argued that Tennessee’s bumper sticker statute, as applied in this case, had violated Owens’ rights to freedom of speech and expression.
“Bumper stickers are an important and inexpensive medium of communication in American society,” said David Hudson, one of the lawyers representing Owens. “People communicate all sorts of ideas, thoughts, emotions, and preferences through bumper stickers. The idea that Mr. Owens’ bumper sticker rises to the level of obscenity is obscene. This bumper sticker was not even remotely in the realm of obscenity, which is an extremely narrow unprotected category of expression.”
On Monday, lawyers for the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department dismissed Owens’ citation, conceding his bumper sticker was protected under the First Amendment and was not obscene. The police department also agreed to cover Owens’ legal costs for the case.
“I feel that the decision is correct,” Owens told Heat Street. “The more you try to take away rights from the people the more they should fight.”
Daniel Horwitz, the other attorney who represented Owens, called the law “facially unconstitutional.” At least four other people have received such citations since 2011, Nashville’s NBC affiliate WSMV reported last month.
But it’s unclear whether the statehouse will pursue legislation to change its bumper sticker law; this legislative session is nearly finished, and by deadline, one of the state representatives heavily involved in First Amendment issues did not answer queries about whether reform legislation would be introduced soon.
Still, Owens and his lawyers are celebrating his legal triumph in Nashville.
“Hard-care censorship of this nature has no place in a free society,” Horwitz said. “We’re ecstatic about this victory, and we appreciate Metro’s prompt concession that the position taken by Mr. Owens’ arresting officer was nakedly meritless.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.