If you think freedom of speech is a relatively undisputed right in this country, think again. State troopers in Pennsylvania issued more than 700 disorderly conduct citations – for swearing – over the course of one year (more here).
As a part of a recent settlement agreement with the ACLU, the Pennsylvania State Police have agreed to stop ticketing people for swearing.
That this was a debated issue until the ACLU stepped in is utterly absurd. What is even more absurd is how the officers issuing the 700 tickets could have possibly believed it was legally or morally appropriate to ticket people for uttering 4-letter words. Even ignoring the complete lack of ethical justification, the First Amendment is pretty clear:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
While some parts of the Constitution are arguably ambiguous or open to different interpretation, the First Amendment is pretty clear – “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…”
Similarly, the Pennsylvania Constitution provides that
The free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the invaluable rights of man, and every citizen may freely speak, write and print on any subject, being responsible for the abuse of that liberty.
This construction is slightly more perplexing as it is unclear what “being responsible for the abuse of that liberty” means. However, if it meant that one was “free” to speak but would be criminally punished by the state for vague “abuse[s] of that liberty,” it would render the entire sentence meaningless. Thus, such an interpretation would not be reasonable.
Even under the most liberal, most generous interpretations of the free speech portions of the United States and Pennsylvania constitutions, it does not appear either would allow for criminalization of cursing.
At any rate, shouldn’t this be something police are knowledgeable about? “Innocent until proven guilty” is a worthless mantra repeated over and over in civic classes, social studies, and government classes. We can laud such a principle all we want, but it appears this principle is rarely put into practice in our justice system.
When one is arrested, they are by default locked up and detained, until they can post bail. If they cannot afford bail, they must await trial. Certainly at trial, the burden of proof is technically on the prosecutor to prove guilt, but the fact of the matter remains – the defendant is physically or forcibly restrained by the state until the prosecutor fails to make the case. Every step along the way, the system functions in a manner that assumes the state has the right to detain and restrict an individual until that individual is able to demonstrate such incarceration is unjustified. This is hardly an example of “innocent until proven guilty,” except maybe only in name.
Similarly here, 700 people received citations for swearing, and it was only until the ACLU made a stink that the police agreed to stop behaving so reprehensibly. Once again, “innocent until proven guilty” proves only to be a philosophical illusion.
And of course, since police are guaranteed funding with taxes, and rarely are fired or disciplined for such transgressions, this will not by any means be an isolated example of police absurdity in constitutional construction. They may refrain from issuing tickets for swearing after this agreement with the ACLU, but next time it could be ticketing for talking too loudly or making mean remarks.