PITTSBURGH - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit today against the City of Pittsburgh and one of its police officers on behalf of a man who received a disorderly conduct citation for using his middle finger in an expressive manner.
David Hackbart was attempting to parallel park when he used his middle finger to express his frustration at a driver who pulled up behind him and blocked his entry into his desired spot. Upon hearing a voice instruct him not to "flip off" the driver, Mr. Hackbart directed his middle finger at the person speaking, who turned out to be Sgt. Brian Elledge of the Pittsburgh Police Department. Sgt. Elledge ordered Mr. Hackbart to stop his vehicle and cited him for violating a Pennsylvania statute prohibiting the use of obscene language and obscene gestures with the intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance, or alarm.
"Courts have interpreted this section of the statute very narrowly to bar only speech and conduct that is truly obscene and thus outside of First Amendment protection," said Sara Rose, an ACLU of Pennsylvania staff attorney. "The law is clear that using one's middle finger to express discontent or frustration is expressive conduct that is protected by the First Amendment. The City has an obligation to train its officers to respect citizens' free-speech rights."
"The police practice of detaining and charging people for impolite behavior gives the police arbitrary power to harass citizens they do not like," said ACLU cooperating attorney Thomas J. Farrell. "This practice must stop."
Although Sgt. Elledge failed to attend Mr. Hackbart's preliminary hearing, a district justice found Mr. Hackbart guilty of violating the statute. After Mr. Hackbart appealed the district justice's ruling to the Court of Common Pleas, the district attorney withdrew the charge.
"Fighting for my rights was the right thing to do," Mr. Hackbart said about his decision to contest the disorderly conduct citation. He said he filed the lawsuit to prevent police officers from violating the rights of others. "I knew what my rights were," he said. "If they did it to me, I'm sure [the police] cite other people" for protected expression who might not be as aware of their rights.
The lawsuit, Hackbart v. City of Pittsburgh, is filed on behalf of David Hackbart by ACLU cooperating attorneys Thomas J. Farrell and Valerie M. Antonette of the law firm Reich, Alexander, Reisinger & Farrell and ACLU of Pennsylvania lawyers Sara Rose and Witold Walczak.
More information on this case, including a copy of the complaint, can be found here.