Now Playing: Free Speech ...its all in the finger.... and legal to do
Topic: CIVIL RIGHTS
When Robert J. Ekas decided to exercise his right to free speech, he didn't open his mouth.
He hoisted his middle finger.
His single-digit protests, aimed at Clackamas County sheriff's deputies last year, resulted in verbal showdowns, traffic tickets and, ultimately, a federal lawsuit.
Giving a police officer the finger may be a rude and ill-advised gesture, but it is not against the law, legal experts say.
"The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently held that speech may not be prohibited simply because some may find it offensive," said Ira P. Robbins, a law professor from American University in Washington, D.C. "Virtually every time someone is arrested for this, assuming there's no other criminal behavior ... the case is either dismissed before trial or the person is convicted at trial and wins on appeal."
Ekas, who represents himself, sued the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office and three of its employees, seeking corrective action and unspecified damages. Assistant County Counsel Edward S. McGlone III declined comment on the lawsuit.
Ekas, 46, a retired Silicon Valley systems analyst turned mathematician who lives in the Clackamas area, claims the traffic stops were acts of retaliation that violated his First and Fourth Amendment rights. He also wants the court to rule that the Sheriff's Office fails to discipline employees who "chill citizens' ... free speech rights."
Ekas gave the finger to a deputy in July 2007 while driving near Clackamas Town Center, according to the lawsuit. With the deputy in pursuit, Ekas said he opened his sunroof and again extended a middle finger. The deputy turned on his flashing lights. Ekas stopped and was cited for an illegal lane change and improper display of license plates. He was acquitted of the charges.
In August 2007, Ekas flipped off another deputy. Ekas again was detained but not issued a citation. He claims he was harassed and intimidated by the deputy and a sergeant who was dispatched after Ekas requested a supervisor be sent to the scene.
Ekas said his actions are a political statement and a protest of police violence.
"They kill unarmed people. That bothers me," Ekas said of police officers. He cited the deaths of James P. Chasse Jr. and Aaron Campbell at the hands of Portland police and the fatal shooting of Fouad Kaady by Clackamas County officers.
"What I am expressing is the right to dissent. That is to say, 'Look, the policies that you've implemented ... the things you've done in our community are offensive to me. Here's my response to that offense,'" Ekas said.
"I did it because I have the right to do it," Ekas said. "We all have that right, and we all need to test it. Otherwise we'll lose it."
Ekas's method of expressing himself has a long history.
The ancient Romans called it "digitus impudicus" -- the impudent finger.
Police have been known to retaliate with traffic tickets or making arrests for disorderly conduct, but criminal charges are routinely dismissed. Criminal law "generally aims to protect persons, property, or the state from serious harm. But use of the middle finger simply does not raise these concerns in most situations," Robbins wrote in a law review article, "Digitus Impudicus: The Middle Finger and the Law."
A Pittsburgh man, David Hackbart, won a $50,000 settlement last year after being cited for disorderly conduct for flipping off an officer. The charge was "retaliatory" and violated his constitutional rights, a federal judge ruled.
The officer's "response to Hackbart's exercise of his First Amendment right" was to charge him with a crime, said U.S. District Judge David Cercone.
In West Linn, Police Chief Terry Timeus took a more diplomatic approach.
After a man's run-ins with police escalated from giving officers the finger to following them on patrol, accusing them of retaliation and shining his headlights on them during traffic stops, Timeus stepped in to try to defuse the situation.
The police chief met with the man and told him the pattern of confrontation and harassment "isn't going to accomplish anything."
Reached at his home, the man said he suffers from anxiety and depression and asked not to be identified. He acknowledged his history of confrontation and grievances with police but said he wanted to move on.
"Chief Timeus has made a difference," the man said, "and I don't want to jeopardize that."
-- Steve Mayes