Columbia police have posted signs around local parks stating that anyone caught cursing in the vicinity will be arrested for profanity. A few local news outlets covered the department’sannouncement, but it seems none bothered to find out whether such a crackdown is even legal or what prompted the decision to spend our tax dollars on such a measure.
The city ordinances cited on the signs are 14-91 (disorderly conduct) and 15-1 (rules of a park). But the city’s disorderly conduct statute makes no mention of profanity, as blogger Ashley Miller pointed out, meaning Columbia police are enforcing a statute that doesn’t exist.
Even if the law did ban cursing near parks, the state Supreme Court has ruled at least three times in the last two decades (Landrum v. Sarratt, State v. Pittman and State v. Perkins) that profanity alone is not grounds for arrest. For profanity to be considered illegal, it must be accompanied by “fighting words” that could reasonably incite violence. For example, cursing at a man’s wife in public could be considered unprotected speech, as it could reasonably instigate a fight with her husband. However, simply cursing in front of the man and his wife in public would be considered protected speech.
Aside from contradicting South Carolina law, the city’s claim runs contrary to other states’ recent actions on the issue. In January, the North Carolina Superior Court struck down the state’s anti-profanity law on free speech grounds. In October, Chicago suburb Park Ridgerepealed its anti-profanity law after the police chief admitted it was likely unconstitutional.
If the city is going to spend taxpayer money posting signs and policing parks for profanity and focusing precious resources on this crackdown, they should at least bother to find out whether the ordinance in question even applies.