Disturbing? Yes. Illegal? Probably not.
That's what police, residents and free-speech experts say about a truck seen driving around the city displaying handmade signs disparaging women. The placards, stuck to the back of the dark purple pickup, include messages such as "All women are Satan" and "A perfect woman is a dead woman."
The display is protected as free speech, according to prosecutors and state and local police.
"These signs, while particularly obnoxious and degrading to women, are part of a long tradition of free expression found on automobiles," Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said in an e-mail.
"Short of a court finding them to be 'fighting words,' they are legal."
The signs may be on the margin, said Josh Wheeler, associate director of The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.
"I think these signs would certainly justify the police investigating whether they represent an actual intent to do harm to someone," he said. "However, whether or not these signs themselves actually represent a true threat is a much more difficult question."
The Supreme Court defines a "true threat" as a serious expression of an intent to commit an unlawful act of violence against an individual or a group, Wheeler said. Speech that makes people fear for their safety isn't protected, he said.
In Virginia, it's a felony to threaten to kill or harm someone in writing if it causes "reasonable apprehension of death or bodily injury."
The Department of Motor Vehicles censors offensive messages from license plates because they're state property. But the department has no purview over bumper stickers or other messages on vehicles, said DMV spokeswoman Melanie Stokes.
The truck with the signs has been seen on Virginia Beach Boulevard and near Haygood Shopping Center.
Randa Deus, 25, and Akena Stevens, 32, shopped at Haygood on Thursday. They said they hadn't seen the signs but wouldn't want to have to explain their messages to their children.
"Everyone has a right to an opinion, but an opinion like that needs to be kept to yourself," Deus said. "Kids shouldn't see that."
Alan Hagerman, 48, said he hadn't seen the truck, either, but found the signs' messages inappropriate.
"I can't believe somebody would actually do that," he said. "It's like somebody's been punished in a divorce, or maybe the wife cheated."
Ruth Hill, executive director of the Samaritan House, which provides shelter and other services for battered women and children, said messages such as these may evoke fear in women, especially those who have been abused. She estimates that one in three women suffer abuse in their lifetimes.
"It could really strike an emotion in a woman who has either just come out of a situation or is still in one," she said. "It could cause some trauma."
But Hill said she doesn't think the signs would actually incite violence.
If the signs bore messages about a racial group or other minority, the same protections would apply, Wheeler said.
"Attempts to argue that volatile, vulgar or extremist political language on bumper stickers is not protected by the First Amendment always seem to fall short," Willis said.
Kathy Adams, (757) 222-5155, email@example.com
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