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Opinion: In America, you must be able to curse the president

Dean ObeidallahDean Obeidallah
No, I don’t agree with Andrea Dick’s baseless view that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. But I absolutely agree that she has the right to post signs on her front lawn that express how much she hates President Biden, even a sign (or in this case, three signs) that read: “F**K Biden.” (To be clear, there are no asterisks in her signs, the F-word is on full display.)
Dick, who lives in Roselle Park, a New Jersey borough less than 20 miles from New York City and home to about 13,000 people, posted 10 signs in all on her front lawn after Memorial Day, turning it into a hate Biden/pro-Trump shrine of sorts. She told the New York Times, “Something must have gotten me worked up.” (You think?!)
Not all the signs contained curse words, but the ones that did sparked complaints by neighbors and parents given the signs are close to a school. It wasn’t long until Dick received a summons from the Roselle Park municipal government for violation of a local ordinance that bans “any obscene material, communication or performance or other article or item which is obscene within the Borough.” Dick’s refusal to remove the signs led to a trial in municipal court.
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On July 15, the Roselle Park municipal judge found Dick guilty of violating the ordinance, but gave her a week to remove the signs that contained profanity before a fine of $250 a day would be imposed. The judge cited the proximity to the school as a factor for his decision, adding, “the case is not a case about politics. It is a case, pure and simple, about language” that violated the local ordinance.
But Dick is digging in her heels, telling the New York Times on Monday, “It’s my First Amendment right and I’m going to stick with that.”
I’m sure some may feel inclined to support the town against the Trump-loving Dick. Her opposition to moving the signs — even if school children see it on way to school — sounds like simply more of the selfishness that has come to define Trumpism. But in this case Dick is correct — and I don’t just mean from a legal point of view.
In our nation, freedom of expression about political issues and leaders must be protected. This is especially true when it comes to criticizing the president. It’s part of the lifeblood of our republic.
That’s why when then-candidate Trump called for “Saturday Night Live” to be canceled in October 2016 because he objected to how they were mocking him during the campaign, I was very vocal in raising alarm bells of how Trump’s response was truly un-American. The same was true in March 2019 when he called for “retribution” against the iconic comedy show for jokes made at his expense. The government banning criticism of its leader — including comedic in nature — is cut right from the dictator’s playbook.
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The US Supreme Court has thankfully long afforded wide protection to free speech when it comes to political issues as well as criticism of political figures. As the Court wrote in the 1964 landmark First Amendment case of New York Times v. Sullivan, “debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”
And in 1971, in Cohen v. California, a case dealing with a man being criminally prosecuted for wearing a jacket that read, “F**k the Draft” (again with the F-word written out), the Supreme Court struck down the conviction as a violation of the First Amendment. In that opinion, the court warned that in areas of political debate, the “government might soon seize upon the censorship of particular words as a convenient guise for banning the expression of unpopular views.” The court also noted that people offended by the curse word “could effectively avoid further bombardment of their sensibilities by averting their eyes.”
That’s why It’s no surprise that the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union recently signed on to appeal Dick’s case and fight for her freedom of speech rights.
Is displaying a profane sign an effective way to convince people to oppose Biden? Probably not. But as the Supreme Court wrote in the Cohen case: (O)ne man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric” and “because government officials cannot make principled distinctions in this area that the Constitution leaves matters of taste and style so largely to the individual.”
That’s the way it must be. If you don’t like a president — or any elected official for that matter — the government should not be in the business of policing the words in which we convey our criticism. Anything less means our democracy — which is currently under attack by the GOP’s concerted effort to enact laws to suppress the vote — will be even less robust going forward. And that is bad for all Americans, regardless of political loyalties.
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