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Paul Robert Cohen showed up in the Los Angeles County Courthouse wearing a jacket emblazoned with the words: “Fuck the Draft.” Women and children were present in the courthouse, and the words were clearly visible on Cohen’s jacket.
The police arrested Cohen. He was later convicted of disturbing the peace and sentenced to 30 days imprisonment.
Cohen challenged his conviction on constitutional grounds. When the California Supreme Court refused to hear the case, Cohen sought review in the United States Supreme Court. The Court considered whether the conviction violated Cohen’s First Amendment rights.
The Court noted that Cohen’s jacket did not fit within any of the recognized exceptions to the Constitution’s protection of the freedom of expression. The jacket lacked any prurient or erotic elements, meaning it wasn’t obscene. Further, the jacket couldn’t be categorized as fighting words, because it wasn’t insulting to any individual or likely to provoke a violent reaction.
Lastly, the state’s interest in protecting public morals was insufficient to justify the arrest, because sensitive people were free to avert their eyes.
Ultimately, the Court struck down Cohen’s conviction, affirming the First Amendment’s protection of offensive expression.