For many years, I have questioned the constitutionality of criminalizing swearing (here and here and here and here). As many know on this blog, I do not like profanity and we delete such comments on this site. However, we are a private site. The issue changes dramatically when people are arrested for foul language and subject to penal sanctions. It is part of the criminalization of America where pet peeves of politicians are ramped up to criminal offenses to make a point. The latest such move is found in Brighton, Michigan (shown here on Main Street) where police will be charging people with disorderly conduct for swearing. They just will not say what will constitute criminally foul language.
The city has only roughly 7,500 people so you would think that mere familiarity and peer pressure could force people to conform their conduct. Yet, the town motto is “Where quality is a way of life” and that appears to include a police-enforced language code.
At the outset, I must say that I have confronted people for swearing in front of children. While some people do so without realizing that children are present, there are certainly some who were raised without such notions of personal restraint and maturity. So I am very sympathetic to the town of Brighton in wanting to crackdown. However, good motivations do not always make for good laws.
The arbitrary selection of certain words as criminally sanctions raises serious free speech issues and questions of vagueness in enforcement. Indeed, the police do not publish or warn about certain words. It seems to leave the matter in the discretion of the officers. That creates the obvious risk of arbitrary and even discriminatory enforcement.
In the case of Colin Andersen, he says that he swore to a friend after receiving a ticket and was overheard by a police officer who charged him with disorderly conduct. Brighton police Chief Tom Wightman says that he does not have a list of prohibited words but that citizens are on notice that swearing can be criminal.
The fine is $200.