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Should you make rude gestures toward anyone while driving? In our modern day, with reports of rampant road rage, this seems foolish. Even more foolish is making rude or obscene gestures toward a police officer. Some might attempt to spout free speech as a reason for flipping the bird, showing the middle finger, or giving the one-finger salute to a cop, but this can be detrimental to general car safety and create future problems you don’t need. That said, let’s answer the burning question: is it illegal to flip off a cop while driving?

What is free speech, and what isn’t?

Too often, people shout “free speech” after saying something they know they shouldn’t or expressing a controversial stance on a subject. Many times, the right to freedom of speech is protected in the United States, but other times it’s not. According to the United States Courts, freedom of speech protects:

  • The right not to speak
  • Students wearing black armbands in protest
  • Certain offensive words and phrases
  • Advertising commercial products and services
  • Engagement in symbolic speech

It does not protect the rights:

  • To incite imminent lawless action
  • To make or distribute obscene materials
  • To burn draft cards
  • To permit students to print articles not approved by the school administration
  • Of students making obscene speech at a school-sponsored event
  • Of students advocating illegal drug use

How does this apply to the act of flipping off a police officer? Let’s dig a little deeper.

Is it illegal to ‘flip off’ a police officer?

Several incidents involving drivers showing their middle finger to a cop while driving have been documented. One such incident, covered by Car and Driver, looks at a woman who flipped off the police officer after a traffic stop. In this case, the officer chose to go easy on the woman, but once she flew the bird while driving away, pulled her over again and gave her a much worse ticket.

Eventually, the woman won her case in court as the court ruled the act was rude but not illegal and therefore not “grounds for seizure.” Although flying the bird or flipping off a police officer qualifies as free speech, it seems rather unwise to be rude to an armed person of authority.

Annoyed cops may find other reasons to write you up

Now that you know you have the legal right under free speech to flip off a cop while driving, the million-dollar question is whether or not this is a smart thing to do. As Suhre & Associates reminds us, police officers are protected by “qualified immunity,” which means the officer has the upper hand in all situations.

Qualified immunity means an officer can violate your rights if they feel you pose a threat to the public. Additionally, communicating a threat, regardless of how thinly veiled that threat might be, is grounds for the officer to detain you and make your life more miserable.

In conclusion, flipping the bird at a police officer doesn’t violate any laws and isn’t grounds for arrest. However, an annoyed cop could try harder to find actual driving laws that are punishable with fines and consider your hand gesture disorderly conduct when other witnesses are present.

Your right to the one-finger salute might be protected under free speech, but is the annoyance of court battles, tickets, and detainment worth that single moment of rudeness toward a cop? Probably not.