Tuesday, June 7

"Fuck the draft!" led Paul Cohen to court 40 years ago

June, 7 1971: 
1. Facts of Case Cohen v. California 403 (1971)
This case came about when Paul Robert Cohen 19 was arrested after he wore a jacket with the words “Fuck the Draft” expressing his opinion of the draft for the Vietnam war while exiting out of a Los Angeles court room on April 26, 1968.

2. Legal Issue

The legal issues at hand was that even though Cohen did not wear the jacket while in the court room he still in fact wore it while existing the Los Angeles court room which put him in violation of section 415 of the California Penal Code, which prohibited maliciously and willfully disturbing the peace or quiet of any neighborhood or person by offensive conduct. The case was brought before the courts to determine if his actions fell within his right to the 1st and 14th amendment or was he in fact in violation of the California Penal code

3. Rule of Law

While the Court of Appeal thought that Cohen was in violation of the Penal code sentencing him to thirty days of imprisonment.
4. Analysis
After the retrial the court decided that by displaying a four letter word he was not in fact inciting negative behavior with the public. The court ruled declared that a court could not censor speech in order to peace. The courts relied on decisions made with Stromberg v. California and the United States v. O’Brien saying that he wanted to be expressive conveying only his opinion making notion to incite a disturbance of any sort.
5. Conclusion
“The defendant did not engage in, nor threaten to engage in, nor did anyone as the result of his conduct” The court reversed the Court of Appeals decision by 5-4
Source: The First Amendment Rocks!

Image: Dr. Peter L. Steinberg when he was 21 years-old sat next to the poster Fuck the Draft, Dirty Linen Corporation, NY, late 60s;


Missy said...

Good deal, I think the right decision was made. We have the right to express ourselves even in public. I would hate for my 8 year old to see those four letter words on the back of someone's jacket but at the same time, kids are exposed to it anyway.


Ana said...

It seems that it became an interjection and the vulgar sense lost it's power.

Herrad said...

Hi Ana,
Another excellent post, thanks.

Ana said...

Thank you Herrad.

Anonymous said...

Was he exisitng out of a courtroom or exiting out of a courtroom?

Ana said...

Thank you. I corrected the typo.

Lydia said...

Paul R. Cohen is my father, it's good that this case is still setting an example after all these years. I have been thinking about it lately since my husband was recently assaulted. He was on the street, never laid his hands on the man that assaulted him, but as near as we can tell the assault was precipitated by the man not liking something my husband said, and the guy didn't like his t-shirt. Thanks for continuing to give this exposure, these issues still matter today. Funny to see my dad at 19, I've never seen that picture before.

Ana said...

I'm very sorry about what happened to you husband.
I'm happy you found this article and left this comment. It's really funny when we see the picture of our parents when they are young.
Thank you very much for the comment.

Victoria said...

Mr. Paul Cohen is the reason I study First Amendment law. I'm working on my Ph.D. in American Legal History. I wrote on the Cohen case for my M.A. thesis. This case has had a profound influence on my life and my educational journey. Please extend my best wishes to your father. I have so much respect for him and Melville Nimmer.

Ana said...

Lydia is the daughter of Mr. Paul Cohen.
This is great that you were influenced by him.

eak said...

The Cohen case is my favorite case to teach in my freedom of speech class - I'm a communication professor, not a law prof.

Lydia, you haven't seen this picture of your dad before because it's not him. This is a photo of Peter Steinberg, when he was a law student in 1977. He's another admirer of your father for standing up for free speech.


Ana said...


Thank you very much. I just added this information.
Thank you so much!