Vulgar Holiday Light Display Protected by Federal Judge

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Dec 27, 2012

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It seems not everyone has been filled with the holiday spirit this year.  In the small Louisiana town of Denham Springs, a dispute between neighbors reached its climax when one woman sent a well lit and familiar message to the family next door: a large hand extending a middle finger outlined in lights.  After pressure from the local police encouraging her to cease and desist, the owner of the offending display, Sarah Childs, sued the town of Denham Springs, its mayor, and its police chief for threatening to arrest her if she did not take it down.  Represented by the ACLU, Ms. Childs claims that her right to free speech has been infringed by her town, and insists the law is on her side.

The court’s involvement stems from two separate incidents between Ms. Childs and the city of Denham Springs.  The first time, Ms. Childs used her holiday lights to illuminate a hand flipping off her neighbor.  After police threats that she would be arrested, she took down the display without protest.  However, after media coverage garnered support from the Louisiana ACLU, Ms. Childs, apparently reinvigorated, one upped her original display by crafting two illuminated hands flipping defiant middle fingers to her enemy next door.

Denham Springs police, not amused, responded with a wave of tickets for unrelated offenses, and renewed threats of arrest.  In response, the ACLU filed the above legal action, claiming that the city was violating Ms. Child’s right of free speech, and that the police instruction had no legal basis or support.  A federal judge agreed with Ms. Childs, and issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the city of Denham Springs, preventing the town from taking legal action.

Freedom of Speech

The ACLU and Ms. Childs accuse the local police from overreaching its authority, and it seems they have a point.  There is no law against the middle finger display, no matter how distasteful or offensive it may be, and the Constitution seems to side with Ms. Childs.  The First Amendment prohibits the government, with some exceptions, from restricting expression, no matter how infantile.  Ms. Childs’ message to her neighbor is not threatening, has not resulted in violence, and, while petty, is not harmful to the neighborhood.  Denham Springs only basis for its actions stems from the city’s displeasure, which does not come with legal authority.

The First Amendment is not designed to only protect speech that everyone agrees with or finds inoffensive.  Instead, the Constitution protects all speech, and in this case, that means it protects what appears to be a juvenile neighborly tit for tat and the resulting abuse of holiday lights.  While it is easy to disagree with Ms. Childs’ display, it is important to recognize that the benefits of free speech far outweigh the costs. 

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