On January 20, 2012, Florida resident Fitzgerald Scott was arrested for wearing a jacket bearing the phrase “Occupy Everywhere” in the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Attorney’s office later dismissed the charge. On Wednesday, attorney Jeff Light filed a false arrest lawsuit on Scott’s behalf.
As in Cohen v. California (1971), Scott’s arrest was based solely on speech. In Cohen, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Paul Cohen’s conviction for wearing a jacket bearing the words “Fuck the Draft” in the Los Angeles County Courthouse in April 1968. It was the alleged offensiveness of the specific words he used, not the message itself, on which his conviction rested before its reversal. According to the majority opinion, “the State certainly lacks power to punish Cohen for the underlying content of the message the inscription conveyed.”
In Scott’s case, there’s nothing offensive about the “Occupy Everywhere” inscription. Even had there been, the Cohen opinion made clear that “we cannot … forbid particular words without also running a substantial risk of suppressing ideas in the process.” In other words, Scott’s arrest was illegal.