The ACLU of Virginia has asked a House of Delegates committee to approve a bill that would decriminalize use of profanity in public.
In a letter to the House Courts of Justice Committee, ACLU-VA Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga said concerns expressed about the implications of HB 893, sponsored by Del. Michael Webert (R-Marshall), on the ability of police to respond when needed to disorderly conduct are unfounded. “Fighting words” or speech meant to incite a riot are addressed in other statutes that can be used to prosecute disorderly conduct or use of abusive language against another person. HB 893 does no more than delete unconstitutional language covering the use of profanity to express viewpoints.
“Profane language, as the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed long ago, remains protected by the First Amendment, however, because it reflects personal viewpoints and is not associated with prohibited conduct,” Gastañaga’s letter states. “It would be hard to argue this is not a clearly established constitutional right” that gives rise to a claim for money damages against any officer who tries to enforce it.
Currently, profanely swearing or cursing in public is punishable as a Class 4 misdemeanor.
A Courts of Justice subcommittee voted to recommend tabling the decriminalization billon Thursday but the full committee can still bring the bill back for a vote when it meets next week.