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Potty Mouths: Steer Clear of Pennsylvania

Sara Mullen,
ACLU of Pennsylvania
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May 14, 2010

If you have a potty mouth, stay away from the Keystone State. It turns out that police in Pennsylvania have delicate sensibilities. A recent ACLU of Pennsylvania Right to Know Law request revealed that in a one-year period, the Pennsylvania State Police issued over 770 disorderly conduct citations for profanity or profane gestures. That’s two citations a day. Illegal citations, I should emphasize, as the courts have made it very clear that profanity, unlike obscenity, is constitutionally protected speech.

On Wednesday, the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed two lawsuits against the Pennsylvania State Police and the Mahanoy City Police of Schuylkill County for issuing disorderly conduct citations to two Pennsylvania residents for using profanity. Our lawsuits argue that profanity and profane gestures are constitutionally protected speech.

Much of the problem stems from the fact that there is a huge difference between the legal definition of obscenity, which is illegal, and profanity, which is not. In legal terms, the pornography in your local porn store doesn’t even qualify as obscene, much less dropping the F-bomb in front of an officer of the law. Only very graphic or extremely violent sexual acts intended to arouse a sexual response qualify as obscenity. It’s understandable that average citizens might not know the difference, but people whose job it is to defend the law should know what the law actually means.

While many people find this case understandably humorous, the consequences of these citations are not so funny. In one case (PDF), our client called a passing motorcyclist she knew an “asshole” after he deliberately swerved as if to hit her and shouted an insult at her. That same day, she reported the incident to the state police, who proceeded to mail her a disorderly conduct citation for swearing. The citation noted that she could face as much as 90 days in jail and a fine up to $300. She was eventually found not guilty — after hiring a lawyer to defend her. In the months leading up to her hearing, our client, a mother of three young children, constantly worried that she might be separated from her family because of the citation.

Unfortunately, the zeal for citing folks for profanity isn’t limited to the state police. In the past few years, the ACLU of Pennsylvania has successfully defended about a dozen individuals against similar charges, including most recently a Scranton woman, Dawn Herb, who swore at her clogged toilet in her home and a Pittsburgh man, David Hackbart, who flipped off a police officer in a dispute over a parking space.

Is it poor manners to swear like a sailor? Definitely. Is it a crime? Definitely not.

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