Are Offensive Bumper Stickers Against the Law?

car, bumper, car on street

This Week’s Wacky Wednesday: Are Offensive Bumper Stickers Against the Law?

A lot of people put bumper stickers on their cars and trucks. The bumper stickers can be fun or serious. They can show your love for a certain pop culture property, a funny joke that you love, or they could highlight your political position, a cause you support, etc. However, have you ever stopped to think whether some bumper stickers could end up getting you pulled over and ticketed?

The Tennessee Bumper Sticker Case

There are certain places in the United States where your bumper sticker could land you in some hot water if it is considered offensive. In Tennessee, for example, Code Title § 55 – Motor Vehicles and Other Vehicles §55-8-187 reads:

“To avoid distracting other drivers and thereby reduce the likelihood of accidents arising from lack of attention or concentration, the display of obscene or patently offensive bumper stickers, window signs, or other markings on a motor vehicle which are visible to other drivers is prohibited and display of such materials shall subject the owner of the vehicle on which they are displayed, upon conviction, to a fine of not less than two dollars ($2.00) nor more than fifty dollars ($50.00).”

It essentially says that offensive speech can be protected, but obscenity can’t be protected. The law was amended to include showing movies in the vehicle that would be considered obscene or offensive if they could be viewed outside of the vehicle by a passerby or another vehicle.

A few years ago, Dustin Owen was cited in Tennessee when an officer from the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department took offense to the stick figure decal that his brother had put on Dustin’s vehicle. It showed what appeared to be two stick figures having intercourse. Below it was, “Making My Family”. It’s an obvious play on all of those stick-figure family stickers that are so popular.

Only a handful of people in the state have been cited using this law. This shows just how selective the law is.

Most of the time, people aren’t going to do anything other than paying the $50 ticket and remove the sticker. However, that wasn’t the route Dustin ended up choosing. Instead, he contacted an attorney. The police department ended up deciding that Dustin was right and that the sticker doesn’t fit the criteria of the law, so he shouldn’t have received a citation for it. The local and national media coverage likely helped to get the citation removed.

What’s Offensive?

This is where things get tricky. Take a look around the Internet today and you’ll find people who can be offended over anything. What one person likes or thinks is harmless and funny could cause another person to gasp and clutch their pearls. Because it’s so easy to be offended, it means that determining what is and isn’t offensive is virtually impossible.

This also means that certain laws, like the one in Tennessee, will not be applied across the board. It will be used selectively, which is a major problem. Laws shouldn’t be something where officers can pick and choose when something offends them personally.