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A sheriff went looking for a truck with a profane anti-Trump sticker. He found controversy instead.

Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls threatened to charge a driver with disorderly conduct Nov. 15 because of a profanity-laced anti-Trump sticker. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy E. Nehls said he was looking for a truck bearing a profanity-laced anti-Trump sticker — and that authorities in his Texas county were considering charging its owner with disorderly conduct.

But his threat immediately raised alarm among free speech advocates — and caused the sheriff to walk back his statement and retreat from social media.

Nehls posted a photo of the truck Wednesday on his personal Facebook page after he said he’d received several complaints  from unhappy people in the Houston-area county.

A graphic on the rear window of the GMC Sierra reads: “F‑‑K TRUMP AND F‑‑K YOU FOR VOTING FOR HIM.” (The profanity is spelled out on the sticker.)

“If you know who owns this truck or it is yours, I would like to discuss it with you,” the sheriff wrote. “Our Prosecutor has informed us she would accept Disorderly Conduct charges regarding it, but I feel we could come to an agreement regarding a modification.”

But the Facebook post was removed Thursday, and the sheriff said he has been receiving hateful messages.

“The objective of the post was to find the owner/driver of the truck and have a conversation with them in order to prevent a potential altercation between the truck driver and those offended by the message,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement. “Since the owner of the truck has been identified, the Sheriff took down the post. Due to the hate messages he has been receiving towards his wife and children, the Sheriff will not be commenting on the matter further.”

The Chronicle reported that the truck’s owners have no plans to remove the custom graphic, which they ordered after Trump’s election.

“It’s not to cause hate or animosity,” Karen Fonseca told the newspaper. “It’s just our freedom of speech and we’re exercising it.”

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The Chronicle reported:

Fonseca said the truck belongs to her husband but that she often drives it. They had the sticker made and added it to the window after the billionaire real estate magnate and reality TV star was sworn into office.
The sticker has attracted attention many times before, Fonseca said. People shake their head. They take photos of it. Officers have pulled her over but failed to find a reason for writing a ticket.

“It makes people happy. They smile. They stop you,” Fonseca told ABC affiliate KTRK. “They want to shake your hand.”

The Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union offered to help Fonseca — and provided Nehls with a “Constitutional Law 101” lesson: “You can’t ban speech just because it has [f‑‑k] in it.”

Texas penal code describes disorderly conduct as “intentionally or knowingly [using] abusive, indecent, profane, or vulgar language in a public place, and the language by its very utterance tends to incite an immediate breach of peace.” Making “an offensive gesture or display in a public place” is also prohibited if “the gesture or display tends to incite an immediate breach of peace.”

But the ACLU cited a 1971 Supreme Court decision, Cohen v. California, in which the high court overturned a man’s disturbing-the-peace conviction after he’d gone to a courthouse in Los Angeles wearing a jacket that said “F‑‑k the Draft.”

Fort Bend County District Attorney John Healey said Thursday that a prosecutor in his office had told a sheriff’s deputy that she would be willing to charge the owner of the truck. Shortly after Nehls’s Facebook post went viral, the same deputy contacted Healey to ask him whether the owners of the vehicle could be charged for disorderly conduct for the sticker.

Healey said they could not.

“Here’s the bottom line — forget about freedom of speech for a minute,” Healey said, who has held the office for 25 years. “The elements of the crime of disorderly conduct are not met. That the obscene or vulgar language depicted or uttered tends to incite an immediate breach of the peace. I don’t believe it does, nor did a select group of prosecutors in my office who reviewed the matter.”

While he said he agrees that the language of the bumper sticker is inappropriate, especially when viewed by children, prosecutors still have to work “within the bounds of the criminal law,” he said.

“No matter how distasteful it may be, it should not be prosecuted,” Healey said. “If people have problems with that… they need to contact their legislators and have the law changed. And the national legislators, to have the constitution changed.”

At a news conference Wednesday, after his Facebook post went viral, Nehls said he supports freedom of speech, according to the Associated Press.

“We have not threatened anybody with arrest; we have not written any citations,” Nehls said. “But I think now it would be a good time to have meaningful dialogue with that person and express the concerns out there regarding the language on the truck.”

In Fort Bend County, southwest of Houston, Hillary Clinton won the majority of the vote in last year’s presidential election, with 51 percent vs. 45 percent for Trump.

Nehls — a Republican who is considering a congressional bid, according to the Chronicle — has not responded to requests for comment.

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It’s not uncommon for bumper stickers to bluntly convey political viewpoints, from messages such as “Impeach Clinton” during Bill Clinton’s presidency to “Hail to the Thief” after George W. Bush’s 2000 election win over Al Gore.

While the First Amendment protects the bulk of offensive speech, there have been several incidents in which law enforcement officials cited drivers for the messages of their bumper stickers.

Typically, those who are cited have bumper stickers with profane language or pictures. A man in Georgia, James Daniel Cunningham, was arrested and fined $200 for his bumper sticker, which read, “S— happens.” The Georgia Supreme Court ruled in 1991 that the state’s law banning bumper stickers with offensive messages wrongfully restricted the driver’s right to free speech.

A few states still have laws specifically prohibiting offensive bumper stickers. Tennessee law, for example, states: “To avoid distracting other drivers and thereby reduce the likelihood of accidents,” displaying obscene or offensive movies, bumper stickers, window signs or other markings on or in a motor vehicle is prohibited, punishable by a fine of up to $50.

In 2011, Tennessee officials said they’d begin ramping up their enforcement of bumper sticker language — although there haven’t been many incidents reported.

In March 2017, a man was cited for a bumper sticker depicting stick figures having sex, which read, “making my family.” He filed a lawsuit against the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, claiming the sticker does not meet the Constitution’s definition of obscenity. Days later, the charges were dropped after police attorneys conceded that the stick-figure display was protected by the First Amendment.

This post has been updated.

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