PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) – An American rights group is suing the police in Pennsylvania for issuing tickets, which carry a jail sentence, to people for swearing.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which filed the lawsuits earlier, argues that the right to use profanity is protected by the U.S. Constitution.
"Unfortunately, many police departments in the commonwealth do not seem to be getting the message that swearing is not a crime," said Marieke Tuthill of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "The courts have repeatedly found that profanity, unlike obscenity, is protected speech."
Obscenity, under the Supreme Court's definition, refers to speech that mainly appeals to the "prurient interest" in sex, according to the ACLU.
One lawsuit involves an unidentified woman in Luzerne County in northeast Pennsylvania who was given a citation which carries a maximum penalty of $300 and 90 days in jail after she yelled an offensive word at a motorcyclist who swerved close to her in October 2008.
In a separate case a man was arrested, cited for disorderly conduct and briefly jailed after shouting a double expletive at a policeman who was writing him a parking ticket.
The two are among at least 750 people in Pennsylvania a year who face illegal disorderly conduct charges because of the use of profanity in Pennsylvania, the ACLU said.
Citations for swearing have also been handed out in other states including Michigan and New York, according to the ACLU, which said it has successfully defended about a dozen people in profanity prosecutions.
But the group added that there are more citations given out in Pennsylvania than other states.
"Cops don't understand that there's a legal definition of obscenity and therefore issue citations for profanity," said Sara Mullen, a spokeswoman for the ACLU.
Tuthill added that the ACLU will continue to bring lawsuits until the practice of issuing citations for swearing is stopped.
Pennsylvania state police were not immediately available for comment.