Fault Lines
20 June 2017
nashville obscenity

Nashville Cops Hate Stick Figure Sex (and the First Amendment) (Update)

March 9, 2017 (Fault Lines) — Can you be fined for hanging Trucknutz from the back of your Ford F-150? Does the rear view decal of Calvin urinating on the number 3 merit a traffic citation? A Davidson County Chancery judge will soon determine whether such displays on vehicles are obscene, thanks to a man fined for a decal that depicts him copulating with his wife.

Dustin Owens claims his brother ordered the decal and placed it on his vehicle as a joke while Owens slept one evening. Owens found the bumper sticker tasteless, but left it in place. Maybe he didn’t want to make the effort required to remove a window decal. Regardless, the “Making my Family” sticker made Dustin Owens run afoul of the Metro Nashville Police Department.

A Metro Nashville officer stopped Owens on February 10 of this year, and fined him for displaying an “obscene bumper sticker” in violation of T.C.A. § 55-8-187. The officer fined Owens $50 and told him to remove the sticker within forty-five days. Being a model citizen of the Volunteer State, Owens refused to remove the decal and sued the Police Department.

Owens’ lawsuit, filed in Davidson County Chancery Court, asks for declaratory and injunctive relief. He’s asking the court to declare his “Making my Family” sticker not obscene by the standards set in Miller v. California, to rule that T.C.A. § 55-8-187 is unconstitutionally overbroad, and to allow him to display the decal depicting the creation of his family without being harassed by the Metro Nashville Police.

Justice requires Owens receive a favorable verdict. The sticker doesn’t meet any of the prongs listed in the Miller test for obscenity. It doesn’t appeal to the prurient interest, which is defined in Tennessee code as a “shameful or morbid” interest in sex. It is far from “patently offensive” to community standards, as outlined in Owens’ Memorandum of Law supporting his lawsuit. Owens points out how works of art depicting sex acts have not met that threshold, and a stick figure drawing absent depictions of genitalia doesn’t meet the constitutional definition of obscenity.

The final Miller prong, according to Owens’ counsel, is satisfied because “family” stickers are a common decal on cars in modern America.  One regularly sees stick figures depicting families on the backs of cars, according to lead counsel Daniel Horwitz. Owens’ sticker is no different, and does not lack serious “literary, artistic, political, or scientific value” simply because a few words change the meaning of how “family” is represented on Owens’ car.

Fault Lines reached out to Daniel Horwitz, lead counsel for Dustin Owens, who graciously provided the following quote.

The First Amendment plainly protects Mr. Owens’ right to place a cartoon sticker on the back of his truck.  He looks forward to vindicating his right to speak freely, and we have every expectation that his claim will prevail.

Dustin Owens’ claim must prevail. Allowing any police officer to arbitrarily fine a party based on what is termed “patently offensive” or “obscene” on a vehicle under constitutionally overbroad standards means the end of “God Bless This Mess” stickers, Calvin urinating on various objects, or even the “Coexist” bumper stickers favored by so many. Injecting morality into what manner of stickers, decals, or other vehicle paraphernalia are acceptable runs afoul of the First Amendment’s commitment to free expression.

If a person took the cited law to its ridiculous extremes, a University of Tennessee fan would risk a fine of $50 if a Vanderbilt-friendly cop saw an orange and white flag displaying the Power T. That’s arguably “patently offensive” to community standards in Nashville, and lacking in any serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. All it would take for the “obscene bumper sticker” statute to kick in is a cop saying “I found this sexually offensive,” and the Vols fan gets a fine.

As of publication, Dustin Owens’ attorneys have asked for a temporary restraining order regarding the removal of the “Making My Family” sticker deemed too offensive for public viewing. Their contention is the Metro Nashville PD has no problem with a TRO since they gave Owens forty-five days to remove the decal. This indicates Metro Nashville Police doesn’t think the sticker will cause car accidents, and this “grace period” is one instance where Horowitz claims Nashville’s Metro PD are tacitly admitting no substantial harm is in play.

This is a First Amendment case worth highlighting because it shows the need for police to remove themselves as the morality brigade while on the job. Yes, Calvin urinating on a sacred object like Dale Earnhardt’s NASCAR number might be offensive to some, but it’s not worth fines, fees, and court costs because a law enforcement officer decided it violated community standards of good taste.

Here’s hoping the Chancery judge in Davidson County does the right thing and at least declares Dustin Owens’ “Making My Family” decal outside the bounds of obscenity. If people can hang metal testicles from the back of trucks, then Owens’ decal is far from “obscene.”

UPDATE: Metro Nashville Police suffered a rout of the highest caliber. Not only have they dropped the citation against Dustin Owens, but they’ve also conceded that Owens’ sticker sex decal was speech protected by the First Amendment.

Metro Nashville PD will pay the costs of the lawsuit, and submit to a declaratory judgment that Owens’ “Making My Family” decal was protected speech under the First Amendment.
When asked for a quote, lead counsel Daniel Horwitz provided Fault Lines with the following:
“The statute under which Mr. Owens was cited is facially unconstitutional.  Hard-core censorship of this nature also has no place in a free society.  We’re ecstatic about this victory, and we appreciate Metro’s prompt concession that the position taken by Mr. Owens’ arresting officer was nakedly meritless.”
It’s a good day for the First Amendment and for people who believe police shouldn’t be the final arbiters of morality.
2 Comments on this post.

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  • Jason Peterson
    9 March 2017 at 2:00 pm - Reply

    I’m surprised the government hasn’t simply claimed the cartoons are “underage”, and charged him with child porn possession.
    That’s usually a sure fire way to silence the Free Speech crowd.

  • fiver
    10 March 2017 at 4:32 pm - Reply