Is cursing a crime, or is it free speech?

Imagine you are driving in traffic on a public street and another driver cuts you off.

Imagine going to a sporting event and watching a player on your favorite team doing something that really irks you, like dropping a ball.

Or imagine walking down a street on the sidewalk and having an outrageously loud vehicle drive by, disturbing the peace.

How would you react to any of these scenarios?

You might angrily yell something out, and it’s likely not going to be “Happy Birthday!”

Well, if you plan on letting your true feelings be known and yelling out some curse words, then you’d better not do it in the presence of some of Pennsylvania’s law enforcement officers.

Here in the Commonwealth, more than 750 people were ticketed last year alone by Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) troopers for using profane language, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania (ACLUP).

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What, weren’t any real crimes being committed at those times that could have truly been worth the focus and attention of our men and women in blue? The troopers needed to really nail some baddies who cursed out loud, rather than tracking down thieves, killers, speeders or drunk drivers?

Talk about insanity.

At least the ACLUP sees the ridiculousness of these citations. In an announcement yesterday, the ACLUP declared that it is filing separate lawsuits against the PSP and the Mahanoy City Police department in Schuylkill County for citing two state residents for using profane speech.

Cursing in public or even using a profane hand gesture, the ACLUP argues, should not be punishable by a citation and fine, but is in fact free speech.

That’s absolutely right.

It may not be nice to hear, and it may not be acceptable to others or welcome, but free speech is free speech, even if it is someone using profanity to make a point.

“Police should be focused on protecting public safety, not enforcing manners,” said Marieke Tuthill, a legal fellow with the ACLU of Pennsylvania, in the group’s press release. “It may not be polite to swear at someone, but it’s certainly not a crime.”

One of the lawsuits filed against the state police involves a Luzerne County woman who apparently cursed at a friend on a motorcycle when he shouted an insult and swerved close to her as he rode by on a public road in 2008, according to the ACLUP. The woman “responded by calling the motorcyclist an ‘a**hole.'” She later reported the motorcyclist’s actions to the state police, who did cite the motorist but also cited her for yelling the obscenity. She challenged the ticket in court before a district magistrate and won.

The punishment for such a “crime” if convicted is up to 90 days in jail and a fine up to $300.

The other case involved a Mahanoy City resident who was double-parked while delivering pizzas in late 2008. When he got back to his car, according to the ACLUP, he cursed at a local police officer who was writing him a parking ticket, calling him a “f***ing a**hole,” according to the lawsuit. The officer then cited him again, this time with disorderly conduct for use of obscenity. He was arrested and briefly jailed, according to the ACLUP, then was later found not guilty by a district magistrate.

Such incidents are apparently common in Pennsylvania, where the group has successfully defended about a dozen individuals in connection with such “crimes,” according to the ACLUP.  Pittsburgh police paid a $50,000 settlement in 2009 after an investigation showed that they had cited people for profanity more than 200 times over a four-year period.

“Unfortunately many police departments in the commonwealth do not seem to be getting the message that swearing is not a crime,” said Tuthill of the ACLUP. “The courts have repeatedly found that profanity, unlike obscenity, is protected speech. We will continue bringing lawsuits until this illegal practice is stopped.”

We have free speech in this country, and that’s one of our critical rights, even if it is sometimes distasteful to someone else.

Certainly our police officers have more important things to do with their time on the clock than cite our citizens for cursing.

A more preposterous waste of police time likely does not exist.