Legal update: It’s about time — the Pa. State Police will no longer ticket people for cursing
By Dean I Weitzman, Esq. on January 5th, 2011
As crazy as it sounds, until this week, you could be ticketed and fined for cursing in public in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania if your profane speech was overheard by a state trooper.
In fact, the state police had in the past issued more than 750 such citations in one year to residents.
In a settlement announced yesterday between the state police and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania (ACLUP), the state police have agreed to halt their practice of writing citations for cursing and to provide “mandatory training to its officers about free speech,” according to a press release issued by the ACLUP.
The settlement came after the ACLUP sued the state police last May in connection with the case of a Luzerne County woman who apparently cursed at an acquaintance on a motorcycle as he rode by, according to the lawsuit. The motorcyclist shouted an insult and swerved close to her as he passed by her on a public road in 2008, according to the lawsuit. 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.
Under the settlement with the state police, the ACLUP withdrew the federal lawsuit it had filed in the case.
The ACLUP also filed a similar lawsuit against a local police department in Pennsylvania, and that case is still pending, according to an Associated Press story on the settlement.
That 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.
Last May, we here at MyPhillyLawyer wrote about the absurdity of police officers writing tickets to citizens for cursing.
“We have free speech in this country, and that’s one of our critical rights, even if it is sometimes distasteful to someone else,” we wrote in our blog post at that time. “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.”
So what did this ACLUP lawsuit accomplish for free speech here in Pennsylvania?
Under the settlement, the state police has agreed to advise its troopers that “they cannot issue citations solely for the use of profane or offensive words or gestures, even if they are directed at law enforcement personnel,” according to the ACLUP.
The state police will also “provide additional training to all troopers and cadets on the First Amendment right of individuals to express themselves using profane language or gestures,” as well as creating a mandatory training update for new and continuing state law enforcement officers about the new policy.
The state police also agreed to “revise existing training materials on the disorderly conduct statute to clarify that the term ‘obscene’ in the statute does not refer to profanity, indecent speech or gestures,” according to the ACLUP.
As part of the agreement, the state police will also review all citations issued under the disorderly conduct statute for the next two years to ensure that they were not issued solely for the use of profane words or gestures, according to the ACLUP.
The state police will pay $17,500 in damages and attorneys fees as part of the settlement.
Mary Catherine Roper, a staff attorney for the ACLUP in Philadelphia who was one of the attorneys handling the case, said the settlement is a good one for residents.
“This is a terrific start because it covers the entire state and because the Pennsylvania State Police really worked out a comprehensive program to train their troopers,” she said. “We are very pleased. This will affect millions of Pennsylvanians for whom the state police provide the only law enforcement. Besides being a waste of police resources, these types of citations are often used by police to ‘punish’ people who argue with them. We are very happy the state police will proactively address this problem.”
At MyPhillyLawyer, we’re also very pleased with the settlement and the resolution of this over-the-top policing in our communities.
Yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater is one thing, but cursing in a public place or at a police officer or another person is simply should not be against the law.
Free speech is a right of every American and one that must be defended vigorously, even when someone else finds it objectionable.
We give due credit to the state police for reaching this settlement and changing its archaic old procedures.
Now if only police officers and state troopers could find ways to avoid having people curse at them in the first place.
That’s a whole other topic for another time.