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Hey Iran!the legal history
of the finger

1977: A state appeals court in Connecticut overturns the conviction of a high school student who gave the finger to a state trooper from the back of his school bus. The officer had stopped behind the bus at a red light.

1980: Police arrest a contractor in Hammond, Louisiana after he paints a 30-foot-high image on a supermarket wall of Mickey Mouse flipping the bird with the caption, "Hey Iran!"

1983: A Texas court upheld a breach of the peace conviction against a student who flipped off his principal during graduation.

1990: In the case of an Arizona man pulled over in 1987 for flipping off a cop, a federal court rules that "no matter how peculiar, abrasive, unruly or distasteful a person's conduct may be, it cannot justify a police stop unless it suggests that some specific crime has been, or is about to be, committed." It also ruled, "We cannot condone Duran's conduct; it was boorish, crass and, initially at least, unjustified. Our hard-working law enforcement officers surely deserve better treatment from members of the public. But disgraceful as Duran's behavior may have been, it was not illegal; criticism of the police is not a crime."

1990: When a patrol helicopter hovers 800 feet over a home in Oceanside, California, the owner grabs a flashlight, aims it at the chopper and flips off the officers. Minutes later, a dozen officers converge on the home, hogtie him and arrest him and his wife. The prosecutor refuses to press charges against the couple, who later win $300,000 in damages.

1991: Police arrest a driver who gave the finger to Santa Claus as he speaks to a girl and her parents in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Santa turns out to be an off-duty cop.

Jimmie Wayne Jeffers1995: Jimmie Wayne Jeffers (right), being executed in Arizona for killing his ex-girlfriend in 1976, flips the bird to the warden after being strapped in for his lethal injection. According to witnesses, it is still raised as he dies.

1996: Ohio and seven other states ban Bad Frog Beer because its label shows an amphibian with a webbed finger raised. The brewery argues that because the frog only had four fingers, it couldn't be raising the middle one.

1996: A judge in Mercer County, New Jersey who refused a defense request for a mistrial complains about the reaction of a public defender. "I observed an expression on her face of great anger," he writes. "At the time her left hand was raised and thrust toward the bench with her middle finger in a raised position."

1998: A jury awards a junkyard owner in Arkansas $4000 in damages against a state trooper who arrested him for flipping the bird as they passed on a county road. Earlier that year, the man's nephew had received a $2500 settlement after being arrested for flipping off a different cop.

1998: Police fined a Pennsylvania woman $25 for yelling "Fuck you!" and flipping off a flag worker. In 2000 the state supreme court reverses the fine, saying that the bird cannot be considered obscene, as required by state law. It rules, "It would be a rare person who would be turned on by the display of a middle finger or the language it represents."

2000: After being interrupted, a school board member in Allentown, Pennsylvania gives the finger to the board president. During his trial, the member argues his gesture had not been sexual, and therefore not obscene. But a tape of the meeting shows he'd later threatened to "put some Vaseline" on his bird. A judge fines him $100.

2001: An officer in Medley, Florida arrests a man on obscenity charges for two stickers he had placed on his pickup. One shows a foot-high Calvin of the Calvin & Hobbes strip sticking up his middle finger while he urinates on the names of the driver's ex-girlfriend, her husband and their daughter.

2001: An accused drunk driver asks a Pennsylvania judge to throw out the charge because the cop pursued her only after she flipped him off. An appeals court rules in her favor.

2001: Robert Coggin allegedly gives the finger to a slow driver on a San Antonio highway. The driver calls police, and Coggin spends $15,000 over the next two years to get the $250 fine reversed. An appeals court rules that the digitus impudicus ("impudent finger") is protected speech, especially if its target is not "violently aroused."

2002: A woman representing herself at trial in Calgary, Alberta for reckless driving apologizes to the judge for rolling her eyes and flipping off witnesses who testify against her.

2003: School officials in Waterloo, Ontario suspend a 12-year-old after he gives the finger during the class portrait. "I didn't even realize that my middle finger was sticking out," he claims. His mother says of school officials: "They're not anthropologists. They can't look at a picture and determine someone's intentions."

2003: A judge in Dallas sentences a mechanic to 30 days in jail for contempt after he flips her off during jury selection. The man had ignored her instructions to answer questions verbally rather than by nodding his head.

2003: Five people in the audience at a city council meeting in Chandler, Arizona file a police report after a retired stockbroker gives the council a double-finger salute. They want him charged with disorderly conduct. The retiree, who said he Dale Hirschfelt the mayor and police had been heckling him, said, "I didn't think it was a crime to give someone the finger."

2004: An American Airlines pilot, irritated that officials at Sao Paulo airport had fingerprinted and photographed him, flipped the bird into the camera (right). Police arrested him for disobeying authority, and a judge fined him $13,000 for "his insult to Brazil's national pride and the federal police."

2006: Police ticketed a motorist in Colchester, England for giving the finger to a camera designed to catch speeders, even though he was driving under the speed limit. The ticket read that Simon Thompson had "used offensive hand gestures toward police in full view of passing public for three to four seconds." Thompson explained, "I wasn’t giving the officers the finger. I was aiming my anger at the camera."

2009: A federal judge ruled that police had violated David Hackbart's First Amendment rights when he was cited for flipping the bird at a Pittsburgh police officer. In April 2006, Hackbart was attempting to parallel park when another driver blocked him. He flipped the driver off, then heard a voice say, "Don't flip that driver off!" It was a passing police officer, so Hackbart flipped him off too. The officer cited him for disorderly conduct and for violating a state law prohibiting the use of obscene language and gestures. The ACLU got involved. The city said the citation was given in retaliation by the officer, not for "blocking traffic," as the city contended. The city eventually settled with Hackbart for $50,000.

2010: Robert Ekas has sued the Clackamas County (Oregon) Sheriff Department and three employees in federal court because he says its deputies hassle him whenever he gives them the finger. "The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently held that speech may not be prohibited simply because some may find it offensive," Ira Robbins, a law professor from American University in Washington, D.C. who in 2008 wrote a law review article about the issue, Digitus Impudicus: The Middle Finger and the Law, told the Oregonian. "Virtually every time someone is arrested for this, assuming there's no other criminal behavior, the case is either dismissed before trial or the person is convicted at trial and wins on appeal." Ekas, a retired Silicon Valley systems analyst turned mathematician, say police pull him over repeatedly because he has given officers the finger. The paper reported that, according to the lawsuit, "Ekas gave the finger to a deputy in July 2007 while driving near Clackamas Town Center. With the deputy in pursuit, Ekas said he opened his sunroof and again extended a middle finger. The deputy turned on his flashing lights. Ekas stopped and was cited for an illegal lane change and improper display of license plates. He was acquitted of the charges. In August 2007, Ekas flipped off another deputy. Ekas again was detained but not issued a citation." Ekas says his finger is a political statement in protest of local police having killed unarmed people. "What I am expressing is the right to dissent. That is to say, 'Look, the policies that you've implemented ... the things you've done in our community are offensive to me. Here's my response to that offense,' " Ekas told the paper. "I did it because I have the right to do it. We all have that right, and we all need to test it. Otherwise we'll lose it."

New York Times: Has the Finger Lost Its Taboo?
NPR: Conversation with Ira Robbins

By Chip Rowe. This article first appeared in Playboy, May 2004.
© 2004 Playboy. Reproduced by permission.

Links: Field Guide to the North American Bird (book)
The Finger: The Comprehensive Guide to Flipping Off (book)
101 Ways to Flip the Bird (book)

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