Using the hand signal popularly known as “shooting the bird” may be rude, but it’s not necessarily disorderly conduct, says a Texas appeals court. The Houston Chronicle reports that the case involved whether Robert Lee Coggin incited “an immediate breach of the peace” when he allegedly gestured at a motorist with his raised middle finger as he tailgated a slow-moving vehicle in the left lane of a highway.
A jury convicted Coggin, 34, and fined him $250 for making “an offensive gesture by raising his middle finger in a public place.” Coggin, an electrical engineer who now lives in Austin, denies he made the gesture and spent $15,000 on attorney fees to defend himself.
The story began in October 2001, when Coggin followed another car closely, flashed his lights, and motioned for the vehicle to move to the right lane. After he allegedly gestured with his raised middle finger, he was charged with “disorderly conduct — gesture.”
In a dissent, Chief Justice Kenneth Law wrote that the case did have “all of the ingredients for immediate violence” and that “one must ignore the reality of modern life to not recognize that many instances of `road rage’ begin in such a manner.” His colleagues disagreed and reversed the conviction.
The court’s majority opinion quoted a Merriam-Webster OnLine definition of the “bird” as “an obscene gesture of contempt made by pointing the middle finger up while keeping the other fingers down…It was also known as the obscene finger, or the infamous finger, and there are a number of references to its use in the writings of classical authors. …The middle-finger jerk has survived for over 2,000 years and is still current in many parts of the world, especially in the United States.”