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Fake headline falsely suggests cursing the president is illegal

September 17, 2021 GMT

CLAIM: A news headline says that screaming the F-word toward President Joe Biden might be illegal.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. This is not a genuine news headline, and legal experts agree that the First Amendment protects the right to use expletives in reference to the president or anyone else.

THE FACTS: Legal experts aren’t warning Biden protesters that screaming the F-word toward the president could be criminal, despite claims in a bogus headline that was circulating widely on Instagram on Friday.

“It’s Not Just Dangerous; Screaming F*** Biden May Also Be Illegal,” read the fake headline. “Experts warn that in addition to the violent incitement caused by screaming expletives at the president, such threats may also be criminal.”

The headline was designed to look legitimate, but an internet search revealed it was not featured in any real publication. Instead, the image appeared on a meme website and on an Instagram account that featured several other images with fake news headlines. The Instagram user who posted it didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

Five legal experts consulted separately by The Associated Press agreed that using swear words in reference to the president or anyone else is protected by the First Amendment. While there are contexts in which screaming an expletive could be prosecuted, it wouldn’t be because of the word, they said.

“What a silly notion,” said Andrew Koppelman, a professor and constitutional law expert at Northwestern University. “Please do not start screaming in the public library or in a courtroom during a trial. It will also get you thrown out of Home Depot. But if you want to go out on the street and yell, the First Amendment protects your right to say very rude things.”

“In this country generally you can say pretty much anything you want about the president unless it’s a true threat, and that’s been pretty well defined,” said James Weinstein, a professor at Arizona State University’s law school.

Timothy Zick, a professor who specializes in First Amendment law at William and Mary University, pointed to court cases that support the notion that the F-word is protected speech.

“The Supreme Court has recognized that criticism of public officials ‘may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.’ N.Y. Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964),” Zick said in an email to the AP. “It has also said, with regard to the F-word, that ‘one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.’ Cohen v. California (1971).”

“Bottom line,” Zick said, “The F-word is not broadly off limits when it comes to criticizing presidents.”

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This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.