Tribune: Flipping the bird is crude but not illegal

A judge in Montreal has ruled that giving the finger to your neighbor is a protected expression under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.1 The case involved two feuding neighbors, one of which had accused the other of uttering death threats and criminal harassment. It turned out the death threats and harassment were really just one neighbor giving the finger (although, with both hands) to the other.

In his decision,2 the judge barely masks his annoyance at the case before him, writing, “It is deplorable that the complainants have weaponized the criminal justice system in an attempt to exert revenge on an innocent man for some perceived slights that are, at best, trivial peeves.” He also stated in his decision that being told to f— off should not prompt a call to 911. He elaborated, “The complainants are free to clutch their pearls in the face of such an insult. However, the police department and the 911 dispatching service have more important priorities to address.”

But what about US?

In the United States, giving someone the finger is a protected expression under the First Amendment.

Most recently, an appeals court ruled in 2019 that giving the finger is protected free speech, even if the recipient is a police officer.3 In that case, a woman had been pulled over for speeding but was written a lesser ticket for a non-moving violation. After giving the officer the finger as she pulled away, he pulled her over again and changed her ticket to reflect the more serious violation of speeding. The court ruled that the first stop was justified because she had committed an infraction, but the second stop was not justified because it was only a response to her vulgar gesture. The judge noted, “Fits of rudeness or lack of gratitude may violate the Golden Rule. But that doesn’t make them illegal or for that matter punishable.”