Dustin Owens’ racy bumper sticker began as a prank by his brother. It ended in a $50 ticket from Nashville police.
Under Tennessee law, drivers are prohibited from displaying “obscene or patently offensive bumper stickers, window signs, etc.” But the law’s definition of obscene is largely subjective. It includes materials that “appeals to the prurient interest” by showing “a shameful or morbid interest in sex” that “taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”
Nashville cops interpreted that law to include Owens’ bumper sticker, which depicts a cartoon man and a woman with Comic Sans text that reads, “Making My Family.”
“I think it’s against my First Amendment rights as an American citizen,” Owens told Heat Street. “[Demonstrators] can stand in the middle of the highway to protest with signs that have curse words and obscene pictures, but I can’t have a sticker on my truck.”
Tennessee Rep. Martin Daniels, who has sponsored legislation strengthening free speech rights on campuses, said he’d been unaware of the law on offensive bumper stickers.
“It seems overly broad, and I would bet that it would be stricken down as unconstitutional, if tested,” Daniels told Heat Street.
But Owens says: “At this time I just don’t have the money to fight it. I can’t afford a lawyer.”
Tennessee has long had a law restricting obscene bumper stickers, but in 2011, lawmakers enacted tougher penalties, increasing the fine from $2 to $50.
Gary Moore, who sponsored the legislation, told local media in 2011 that “you do not have a right to impose your speech on other people.”
Moore, who is now retired from the Tennessee statehouse, told Heat Street, “I believe very much in free speech.” At the same time, he said, it’s important to keep children from seeing obscene content.
“As you know, magazines like Playgirl, etc., have the right to free expression but they are not allowed on shelves easily accessible to children,” Moore said. “Why should autos be allowed to show obscene messages for kids to read?”
According to Nashville’s NBC affiliate WSMV, only four people have received citations since lawmakers harshened the penalties.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.