Travelers and residents in Pennsylvania, feel free to break open that swear jar — you no longer need it to make bail. This week, the Pennsylvania State Police reached a settlement with the ACLU that retires them from policing the dictionary. This, after 770 people were cited in a one-year period, and faced a fine and potential jail time, for speaking words the state police deemed obscene.
The ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit in May on behalf of Lona Scarpa of Luzerne County, who called a motorcyclist an “asshole” after he swerved too close to her and another pedestrian. When she reported the incident to the police, Ms. Scarpa found herself charged with disorderly conduct for swearing and faced a possible $300 fine and 90 days in jail.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and many other courts, have made it very clear that profanity — including dirty words, foul language, and rude gestures — is protected speech. Nevertheless, an ACLU investigation revealed that the state police had, on average, issued more than two such citations per day.
“Using profanity toward someone, whether an officer or not, is just not one of those things that you can put someone in jail for,” explains Mary Catherine Roper, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “It may not be very smart, but you have a constitutional right to do that.”
As part of the settlement, the state police have agreed to retrain their officers to make clear that they cannot cite people for profanity, indecent speech, or gestures. The ACLU reached a similar settlement with the Pittsburgh Police in 2008, and we will continue to take on any police department that appoints themselves the word police.