Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Can Bart Simpson moon traffic? Public decency debate moves to Pender County

Where's the line with car decals that can be offensive to many on the road? Here's what the state and the Constitution say on the issue, plus Sheriff Alan Cutler's views.

The question of whether famous cartoon figure Bart Simpson can moon the public has been brought up in Pender County. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)
The question of whether famous cartoon figure Bart Simpson can moon the public has been brought up in Pender County. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)

PENDER COUNTY — Plenty of people use car decals as a mode of personal expression. Everything from political opinions and religious beliefs to someone’s thoughts on organic food can be found on the back of a windshield somewhere.

One popular sticker depicts cartoon character Bart Simpson with his pants down in the “mooning” position. Earlier this week, when a social media post alleged that a Pender County deputy pulled over a 23-year-old man and threatened to charge him with disorderly conduct if he didn’t remove such a sticker, the inevitable public social media discussion ensued.

RELATED: Carolina Beach council removes ‘buttocks’ from indecent exposure law

Did the law enforcement officer have the right to make such a threat, even if a violation wasn’t given to the driver? Are certain offensive decals a violation of state law?

Although it’s not completely clear what happened — the Pender County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) couldn’t confirm the incident without a citation number — it did extend a conversation of public decency that first began in Kure Beach in January before heading north to Carolina Beach this summer. And the topic surrounding each debate involved the public exposure of one’s backside — whether in real life or, apparently, in cartoon form.

State law and the Constitution

One North Carolina statute addresses obscene literature and exhibitions, prohibiting any individual from intentionally disseminating “obscenity” — defined as any material depicting sexual conduct; material that lacks any serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value; or any material not protected by the U.S. Constitution.

The state of Florida recently referenced the First Amendment in a case similar to the alleged incident in Pender County. In May, a Lake City resident was arrested for displaying an allegedly vulgar window sticker on his truck that a deputy claimed violated state obscenity law. Five days later, Assistant State Attorney John Durrett said the state had dropped two charges against the man, including the possession of obscene materials.

“Having evaluated the evidence through the prism of Supreme Court precedent it is determined the Defendant has a valid defense to be raised under the First Amendment of our United States Constitution,” Durrett wrote in the case file. “Given such, a jury would not convict under these facts.”

The precedent was largely built on Texas v. Johnson, which reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989 and resulted in the protection of an act that greatly offends many Americans. After a march through the streets of Dallas during the 1984 Republican Convention, Gregory Johnson burned an American flag while protestors chanted.

No one was physically injured or threatened with injury, although several witnesses were seriously offended by the flag burning,” a summary of the opinion reads.

Johnson was convicted of desecration of a venerated object in violation of a Texas statute, and a state court of appeals affirmed the decision. But the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed it, arguing the state couldn’t punish Johnson for burning the flag because of protections provided by the First Amendment. The decision was upheld in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The nation’s highest court argued the government “may not prohibit the verbal or nonverbal expression of an idea merely because society finds the idea offensive or disagreeable, even where our flag is involved.”

For many, an illustration of Bart Simpson with his pants down as he looks over his shoulder captures the idea of rebellion against authority, or the popular sentiments associated with the longest-running television show of all time. For others, it is simply offensive.

Going back to the North Carolina statute, it says that materials would also be considered obscene in nature if “the average person applying contemporary community standards relating to the depiction or description of sexual matters would find that the material taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest in sex.”

A “contemporary community standard” involving the exposure of people’s backsides was addressed last week in Carolina Beach. A resident’s complaint of female beach lifeguards wearing thong bathing suits led to an unexpected policy change, nearly two months after her complaint, that removed the word “buttocks” from the town’s public nudity law.

Further south, Kure Beach bans beachgoers from wearing thongs, with no intention (as of January) to change that own ordinance.

Sheriff Cutler on disorderly conduct

On Thursday afternoon, Sheriff Alan Cutler said he was unfamiliar with the Simpson decal incident, but he did point to another state statute addressing disorderly conduct.

The law he referenced states that disorderly conduct is a public disturbance if an individual “makes or uses any utterance, gesture, display or abusive language which is intended and plainly likely to provoke violent retaliation and thereby cause a breach of the peace.” 

To be quite honest, I think it would be up to a judge or a jury’s interpretation of what could possibly cause a breach of the peace,” Cutler said. “And I don’t think we would normally make a traffic stop on a bumper sticker like [the Bart Simpson decal] … It would depend on the content and the situation. I would just hope that people would use enough respect and common courtesy and common sense to really be mindful of what they do put on their vehicles.”

And he said it’d be up to the courts to decide whether a traffic stop, due to a potentially peace-breaching car decal, is legal or constitutional.

“If they can determine that stop is not legal, then anything from that point, most of the time, is just thrown out of court,” Cutler said.

Mark Darrough can be reached at or (970) 413-3815

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