Cursing and the Constitution
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Under the First Amendment to the Constitution, Americans are given the right to the freedom of speech. But does this apply to profanity?
You know the feeling. You are walking in the mall and see a teenager wearing a black shirt with large white letters on it. The word on the shirt is one that would have earned you a large whooping from your parents for even accidentally uttering when you were a kid.
You could argue that this is disturbing your peace, but could you actually win a case in court to change the person’s T-shirt wearing habits?
In the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Cohen v. California (1971), just such a disturbing the peace violation was overturned, setting the standard for the constitutionality of cursing.
A 19-year-old young man named Paul Robert Cohen was arrested on April 26, 1968, for disturbing the peace in the Los Angeles Courthouse. In protest of the Vietnam War, Cohen wore a jacket bearing a profane slogan about the draft. He purposefully put on the jacket after leaving the court room in an attempt to “stick it to the man.”
The California Court of Appeal upheld the conviction, saying that “offensive conduct” meant “behavior which has a tendency to provoke others to acts of violence or to in turn disturb the peace.”
The U.S. Supreme Court then granted a writ of certiorari to Cohen, which meant the record of the case was given to the Supreme Court for review.
By a vote of 5-4, the Court overturned the conviction – Cohen was granted the freedom of profane speech.
In the opinion of the Court, Justice John Marshall Harlan II famously stated, “One man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.”
This is sad but true.
Just because you have the freedom to do something doesn’t make it right. Political views and other sorts of disagreements can be argued without making unnecessary statements of vulgarity.
Profanity doesn’t make speech any louder; in fact, it turns some people away from the message out of sheer embarrassment. Cursing crosses the line of respectfulness.