“Travellers and residents in Pennsylvania, feel free to break open that swear jar,” trumpets a Web note from the American Civil Liberties Union dated Jan. 10. The invitation came after the ACLU got state police to agree to stop citing the public for cursing, as part of a settlement in a free-speech lawsuit revolving around the enforcement of Pennsylvania’s disorderly conduct statute. The use of offensive language or gestures is one of the “disorderly” acts named in the statute, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court established years ago that swearing is legal as long as it isn’t threatening or obscene. Yet state police continued to pursue foul mouths, issuing 770 disorderly citations over a one-year period for what officers considered to be sanctionable utterings. Verbal execrations, apparently, were deemed punishable even when used at the sight of an overflowing toilet, as a Pennsylvania woman found out three years ago after being fined.
The case that brought about the settlement involved Lona Scarpa, 35, who received a $297 fine for verbally abusing a motorcyclist who almost ran her over. The citation also said Scarpa could get a 90-day jail term. State police agreed to pay a total of $17,319 to Scarpa, her defence lawyer and the ACLU, and to retrain officers.