Earlier this month, the Supreme Court of Georgia answered a question that has long tormented American youth—or at least me when I was an American youth: If I flip off the pastor, can the police put me in jail?
The answer, in Georgia at least, is no: “a raised middle finger, by itself, does not, without more, amount to fighting words or a true threat,” the state court said. For that reason, a disgruntled parishioner could not be convicted of acting “in a violent or tumultuous manner” and placing another person “in reasonable fear of” their safety.
The protected nature of the middle finger has long been established in American law. But the defendant in Freeman v. State exercised his right to bear digit in the church sanctuary. That fact touches on a larger question that should be well understood but isn’t—the free expression rights of professional athletes.
First, though, the case: on August 3, 2014, David J. Freeman attended Sunday services at the Flowery Branch campus of 12Stone church, a mega church with locations in eight Georgia communities. On that occasion, associate executive pastor Jason Berry asked teachers present to stand for a start-of-the-school-year blessing. Freeman is a home-schooling parent who objects strongly to public education. As related by the Georgia court, “Freeman raised his middle finger in the air and stared angrily at the pastor,” then “began yelling about sending children off to the evil public schools and having them raised by Satan.” This harangue was partially drowned out by the alert music minister. After the congregation filed out, Freeman urged Pastor Berry to be ashamed of himself, then left.