ACLU Challenges Ban on Profanity in Colorado

Affiliate: ACLU of Colorado
September 16, 1999 12:00 am

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COLORADO SPRINGS — The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado today filed suit and challenged a Colorado regulation that bars profanity in bars and restaurants that sell liquor.

The ACLU of Colorado, on behalf of Leonard L. Carlo, owner of Leonard’s Bar II in Colorado Springs, is also challenging actions taken on August 31 by the Colorado Division of Liquor Enforcement.

According to ACLU legal papers, the state acted illegally when it relied on the anti-profanity regulation as grounds for summarily confiscating 29 signs that had been on display in Carlo’s bar.

“The First Amendment forbids the State of Colorado from punishing individuals simply for using language that government officials regard as offensive,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU of Colorado Legal Director. “As the Supreme Court has explained, ‘One man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.'”

According to David Reitz, Director of Liquor Enforcement, authorities are reviewing the matter to determine whether to file an administrative charge against Carlo for an alleged violation of the anti-profanity regulation. The possible sanctions include suspension or even revocation of Carlo’s liquor license.

The ACLU says that Carlo’s affection for foul language, which has shaped the character and image of his bar, is reflected in the signs confiscated by the government. A sign Carlo posted to advise customers not to ask for credit, for example, contained a vulgar expression. The sign marking the location of the men’s room did not simply say “men,” it used two words, and most newspapers would not print one of them.

“The Supreme Court’s metaphor is perfect match for this case,” Silverstein said. “Profanity is Mr. Carlo’s lyric. He loves four-letter words. That is clear from his conversation as well as from the name he chose for his dog.”

According to the ACLU, the Division of Liquor Enforcement has repeatedly taken the position that it has a right to censor language that it regards as offensive.

In a suit filed in early 1998, the ACLU challenged Colorado’s practice of censoring beer labels. The plaintiff, Broadway Brewing Company, was denied permission to distribute in Colorado because its proposed label contained the expression “Good beer . . . no shit,” which Reitz deemed to be “obscene or profane in nature.” Reitz refused to back down and the case is still pending.

“The Constitution protects our right to free expression,” Silverstein said. “It does not permit government inspectors to monitor private businesses to ensure that the owners express themselves in accordance with government-approved standards of good taste.”

The ACLU confronted another related issue in Colorado Springs last year when it challenged the police department’s enforcement of an ordinance that made it a crime to use “indecent language” in a city park.

Police had already charged at least 18 individuals with using swear words when the ACLU wrote a forceful letter demanding an end to the practice. The city promptly called a halt to the ticket writing and revised the ordinance.

Today’s lawsuit, Carlo v. Reitz, was filed in federal district court in Denver. The suit seeks both a preliminary and permanent injunction, including the return of the confiscated signs as well as a declaratory judgment that the anti-profanity regulation violates the Constitution.

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