Last summer, Mark May was driving in Terre Haute when Indiana State Police Master Trooper Matt Ames suddenly cut in front of him and pulled over another driver.
May, a self-employed carpet cleaner, was angry. He felt the trooper’s aggressive driving was dangerous and hypocritical. So May did what many people do in a moment of anger: he raised his middle finger as he drove by.
This is where the story should have ended. After all, May’s gesture was rude and even vulgar, but it was not illegal – and it didn’t interfere with the officer’s duties or endanger the public in any way. Like it or not, giving someone the finger is a constitutionally-protected act of free expression.
But instead of focusing on real threats to public safety, Master Trooper Ames decided to abandon his initial traffic stop and pursue May – pulling him over without probable cause and slapping him with a ticket for “provocation.” The charges were eventually dismissed, but not before May had to stand trial and make two separate appearances in Terre Haute City Court.
This ordeal was an unnecessary and uncalled-for violation of May's constitutional rights, as we explain in our lawsuit on his behalf.
By pulling over and ticketing May for constitutionally-protected expressive conduct, the trooper’s actions violated the First and Fourth Amendments to the United States Constitution.
Master Trooper Ames didn’t have to like the fact that May had flipped him off, but he was totally unjustified in punishing him for it.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo wrote that, “Freedom of expression is the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom.”
No one wants to live in a world where the government officials can punish people for speech they don’t approve. That’s why the defense of freedom of speech is most necessary when the message is offensive or repulsive.
If we give the government the ability to decide what speech is acceptable, everyone’s free speech rights are at risk.
Whether you want to give the police a friendly thumbs-up or the middle finger – the Constitution protects your right to do so.