No profanity in the city’s parks? What the…?!?

Bryan Cox, former news director at WACH-Fox, brings this to my attention. That’s Bryan in the picture, holding the “COCKS” photograph.

Here’s Bryan’s commentary on the matter:

Hey Brad,

These pics were taken Sunday at Sims Park in Shandon. The Columbia police department announced anti-profanity signs were going up via a Facebook post on Wednesday.

See that post here:

This announcement sparked some local media coverage; none of which I saw took a hard look at whether this is legal. The city ordinances cited on the sign are 14-91 (disorderly conduct) and 15-1 (rules of a park).

The SC Supreme Court has ruled at least twice that profanity alone is not grounds for arrest. See: State v Pittman (2000) and State v Perkins (1991). The court has since ruled for profanity to be illegal it must have been accompanied with “fighting words” that could reasonably incite violence. For example, (my understanding of the case law, not an actual example given by the court) cursing at a man’s wife in public likely would not be protected speech as it could reasonably incite a fight with the man. However; simply cursing in front of the man and his wife in public is protected speech.

Aside from contradicting South Carolina law, the city claim runs contrary to other states’ recent action on the issue.

North Carolina Superior Court struck down that state’s anti-profanity law in January on free speech grounds. Here’s a link:

Chicago suburb Park Ridge repealed its anti-profanity law in October. In this article the city police chief is quoted as saying the law likely was unconstitutional:

Obviously I’m not an attorney. However; it seems clear the city knows, or should know, this isn’t enforceable and is spending taxpayer money on signs threatening to arrest citizens for actions that are legal.

It’s also worth noting I posted my photo as a comment on the city’s Facebook page Sunday afternoon, and it was quickly deleted by the department. Apparently, in addition to arresting citizens for crimes that don’t exist the department wants to censor those who dispel this misinformation.

Thanks for taking interest in this. Bryan

Well, of course I’m going to take an interest. You hold up a picture of a pretty young woman holding a sign saying, “COCKS,” it gets my attention.

But I think Bryan’s missing something here: I think that in the Midlands, anything having to do with the Gamecocks or anything that takes place at the Grid Temple takes on religious overtones. Just as we are enjoined against coveting our “neighbor’s ass” in Exodus 20:17, there are words that are OK in a certain context (as long as they refer, in this case, to a donkey). I think in the Grid Temple Bible, there’s probably something about, “Thou shalt have no gods before thy Gamecocks,” or some such.

Anyway, to be serious, I have to say that while Bryan may be on firm legal ground here, my sympathy lies with anyone trying to make our public spaces less coarse. I don’t think we, or our children, or our wives, or our innocent asses, for that matter, should have to be subjected to the kind of filthy that is routine poured forth in loud voices in our parks and elsewhere.

So I’d give our local cops an A for effort, even if they do get slapped down. And don’t quote the First Amendment at me. No rational person believes that the Founders meant that Congress shall make no law abridging F-bombs in public.

47 thoughts on “No profanity in the city’s parks? What the…?!?

  1. `Kathryn Fenner

    and “cocks” isn’t profane–it’s obscene. “Obscenity” has to do with sex; “profanity” with sacred things—damn, hell, Jesus Christ—those are profane. I suspect this difference is going to be lost on CPD, but….

    Obscenity is regulable, depending upon:

    (a) whether the “average person, applying contemporary community standards” would find that the work depicting or describing sexual conduct when taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest…, (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

    I suspect most expletive uses do not actually refer to s-e-x acts, but are simply “naughty” words–so probably are not capable of being banned, either. It’s when you get into pornography you can regulate.

  2. Karen McLeod

    This is a difficult problem. It’s so irritating to have to listen to repeated profanity that has lost all of its punch because of overuse. It’s almost worse than listening to a ‘valley girl’ nattering on and on, using “like” every other word. Both weary the ear. At the same time, I do understand and support freedom of speech. But wouldn’t it be possible to have profanity/obscenity free spaces the same way we have “smoke free” spaces? In these restricted areas one might occasionally hear an occasional profanity drift over the area much like one occasionally catches a whiff of smoke coming through the door into a non smoking area, but is not subjected to a smoke filled room or a profanity filled area.

  3. Brad

    I wonder if the authorities might successfully pursue something based on precedents in sexual harassment law — saying that those who spout obscenities in public are creating a “hostile environment.” Which they certainly are.

  4. Doug Ross

    What a sad country we live in where a single word is considered a criminal act. A word. A word that is only meaningful if the person hearing it attaches some personal offense to it.

    George Carlin is rolling over in his grave.

    Mind your own f’ing business.

  5. Doug Ross

    If I stand in the park and use American Sign Language, am I committing a crime?

    What if I hold up a sign that says:

    “This gdmn law is fcking bllsht”

    Crime or not?

    This type of stuff is so infuriating. A bunch of prudes and busybodies who should spend more time taking care of their own personal failings than policing words.

  6. Doug Ross

    I will donate to the legal fund of the first person who challenges this idiocy. Think of the tax dollars that will be wasted defending the law, prosecuting the law. Haven’t we got much more important things to do?

    And why don’t they post a sign with the words that are considered profanity so we can avoid using them?

  7. Bryan Cox


    Thanks for fostering public debate on this important issue. I share your view it is rude to swear in public, but it is not illegal to be rude.

    As to your last sentence suggesting the founders didn’t intend to protect profanity as free speech. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled precisely the opposite in Cohen v. California (1971)in which the court prohibited states from making the public display of an expletive a criminal offense, without a more specific and compelling reason than a general tendency to disturb the peace.

    You can read the summary of that case here:

  8. bud

    Doug, put me down for $20 for the defense fund. Seriously, the Columbia PD has become a complete laughing stock with this nonsense. The F-word has long ago stopped being offensive to anyone under the age of 30. This is one instance where the younger folk have it right. It’s a word people. If you call someone an idiot that can be far more inflamatory that calling simply saying the f-word for no particular reason. It all depends on the circumstances. And I certainly don’t want the f’ing Columbia PD doing the interpreting.

  9. Ralph Hightower

    Free speech is under assault in South Carolina. Witness SC Governot Nikki Haley’s recent loss in Federal Court with Occupy Columbia.

    Will we need George “7 Dirty Words” Carlin to be the arbiter?

  10. Josh Morgan

    Any rational person would believe that the Founders meant to not let Congress restrict any speech at all. It’s the principle of the matter. If you restrict one word, people are going to be able to coax you into restricting more words.

    It’s the same principle (not situation) as not negotiating with terrorists. Negotiate with one, and you let them know you will negotiate with any.

    If you sacrifice the principle, you lose it all. Plain and simple. Children are exposed to offensive words every day on TV or just out in the open. It’s the parents’ job to teach their kids whether or not it’s OK to use such words.

    And even more personally, people are way too damn sensitive.

  11. Kevin Knight

    I have never heard a good argument as to why people are offended by a swear word. People cannot possibly be offended by the meaning of these words, since they generally will have several different meanings depending on the sentence that they’re used in. Obviously, if someone over-uses a swear word, it makes them look uneducated, but surely that would be the same with any over-used word.
    I have been told by some that they don’t like to use swear words because they are not accepted by the majority of society, but that doesn’t mean that the majority is correct. I think that taking some very versatile words out of people’s vocabulary is moronic. I for one will have no issue at all with my children using such words, as long as they’re not used in a hateful sentence. But I’d have an issue with hateful sentences whether they contained these words or not.

  12. bud

    This little bit of “speech” is far tougher to defend. I find it both threatening as well as offensive. If spoken aloud in the same park as illustrated in this post I would suggest the perpetrator would be committing an illegal act:

    Tea Party Politician on Obama: “Assassinate the fucken nigger and his monkey children”
    Tea Party darling and libertarian Jules Manson just called for the assassination of President Obama and his children on Facebook, but I’m sure it was just a ‘misspeak’ (wink wink).

    In an unnerving display of racism and violence today, this Ron Paul supporting libertarian, who ran for a seat on the City of Carson’s City council last march, and thankfully failed, wrote:

    “Assassinate the fucken nigger and his monkey children”

  13. Bryan Cox

    While I’m not sure how Bud’s examples applies to this conversation, or how a politician is somehow responsible for the actions of a nut just because the nut supports him, he does illustrate a key distinction applicable here.

    Communicating a threat is an objective act; it can be impartially determined based on fact. Profanity is a subjective matter; what one person deems offensive another might find completely acceptable.

    Unless the city publishes a list of all words it wishes to ban it is empowering officers to arrest citizens based upon their personal opinion of what constitutes profanity. This essentially gives police blanket authority to arrest any individual for any utterance. Even if the charge is baseless and subsequently dropped you’ll still have been arrested and thrown in jail.

  14. `Kathryn Fenner

    @ Silence — An atheist can certainly use profanity. The beliefs of the user are irrelevant–it’s the blaspheming itself that is profane.

    @ Karen McLeod– it is possible to place reasonable, content-neutral restrictions on free speech, so long as a viable forum remains. However, these wouldn’t be “content-neutral”, right?, and the Supremes have ruled that you can legislate about obscenity but not profanity (Bryan Caskey can probably pull that cite faster than I can– Westlaw/Lexis?)

  15. Brad

    Of course he isn’t; nor is Paul.

    Threatening the president of the United States is a violation of federal law, First Amendment or no. Quite right, too. Although I’d be more concerned about that on republican grounds than about local ordinances (not even Congress, mind, which is the only body thus limited by the Amendment) against coarse language. That law basically places the president in a category different from that of other citizens, and is the most “royal” of statutes we tolerate. THAT could be construed as a threat to democratic and republican principles, far more readily than local ordinances against using foul language in public.

    Just FYI to anyone who cares, I have always been unimpressed by the “slippery slope” argument (limit obscenity and the next thing you know political dissent is limited).

    And Bryan, all sorts of case law can be found to support interpretations that would have surprised the Framers. Law is law and must be respected. That doesn’t mean I believe it was based on sound interpretation.

  16. `Kathryn Fenner

    I have a lot more trouble with limits on an individual human’s speech, regardless of how gratuitously vulgar, than with limits on a corporate “person”‘s speech, unlike the Supremes.

    Does anyone really think our precious children don’t already know these words? Are none of you familiar with Chaucer? Indelicate speech has always been with us and always will be. Expletives serve a human need, apparently.

  17. bud

    I’m not painting all Paul supporters with the same brush. I’m just using this as an example of what I would consider illegal speech in a park. If someone has an example of an Obama supporter saying something comparable about Ron Paul then that too would be equally offensive and illegal.

  18. Karen McLeod

    Doug, of course the words can be content free if used nonsensically in a neutral voice. They can also be used in ways that effectively emasculate their usual content, (eg. is the word “f–k” obscene as it is used in this sentence?) However, these words are designed to be used in intensely emotional situations; that’s why they got to be considered obscene in the first place. Many people do not want their small children exposed to this language (they also don’t want their children around people who are so emotionally upset be it with anger or lust that they are using this language–it’s potentially too explosive a situation). Some don’t care to be around such themselves. Arguably these people have attached too much importance to the words per se. But to deprive these words of their emotive power is to deprive them of primary meaning. Then one has to find different words to express the same emotional status. Into the linguistic jungle we go. Expect snakes and monsters.

  19. bud

    Law is law and must be respected.

    I’m not sure I agree. Some laws are just so vulgar they should be ignored. It was illegal for black people to use a public restroom. Should such a law be “respected”? There are laws on the books today that prohibit equally ridiculous acts.

  20. DaveC

    As one who has publicly uttered some of the words I assume the City of Columbia is concerned about, I think the city is wasting precious tax dollars on a law they I’m sure the City Fathers (would calling them the City Mothers be obscene?) know they can’t hope to enforce.

    While I’ve long heard the wag that anyone who uses curse words shows a lack of education and command of the language, I still believe a well chosen expletive sometimes conveys meaning far better than circumlocution.

    If I hit my thumb with a hammer, I could say “Oh my. I seem to have crushed my opposable digit. This is most disconcerting. How will I survive?” In my case, I’d more likely make a Hell Boy-esque observation of “Oh crap!” and proceed to look for some ice. Guess I’d better not injure myself in a Columbia park.

  21. Silence

    @ Kathryn
    How could one blaspheme that which doesn’t exist? Also, shouldn’t the separation of (your) church and (our) state protect me from blasphemy laws?

  22. `Kathryn Fenner

    @Silence– There are no American blasphemy laws. As I said, only obscenity can be restricted, not profanity. If I draw a cartoon o Mohammed, I am, apparently, blaspheming him and all Muslims. I do not ascribe to Islam, but I am still blaspheming. it is up to the listener to be offended. An atheist cannot be offended by blasphemy, but he or she can certainly commit it.

  23. SusanG

    The school districts do not allow the children to use profanity at school — they can be suspended for it. If they’re just words then why can’t our first-graders use them freely at school?

    Also, I the “they’re just words” argument is a little disingenuous in general — all words are just words — and they all mean something. Yes, words change their meaning over time, but at any point in time, some words are not appropriate in most public situations. Some words as well as some topics are inappropriate for conversation in a public place.

    Though I disagree with some of the arguments being given, I still wonder about the law. Is this law being emphasized right now because a particular problem, I wonder? Is there an actual park that has been taken over by a loud group of coarse-talking individuals, and so the children can’t play on the playground? I haven’t really noticed a problem with profanity (or obscenity) in any of the parks I’ve been to lately — seems like an odd law to be enforcing with signage….

  24. Brad

    Actually, theoretically, an atheist CAN be offended by blasphemy — a polite atheist, one with a sense of decorum. He could be offended by a blasphemous display on the basis of its being bad form.

    It’s like, I am not a Muslim, but I find those cartoons DELIBERATELY concocted to offend Muslims as being childishly offensive. Grownups don’t go about deliberately offending other people, and when someone does, a person with any sense of civility is offended by such intent, whether his beliefs are being gored or not.

    Matter of being civilized.

  25. Brad

    And Susan, I’m with you on the “they’re just words” being disingenuous.

    Makes me wonder which planet folks who say that live on. Seems like if they were on this one, they’d have noticed what force words have.

  26. Scout

    So if profanity is the blaspheming of the sacred, and the utterer’s belief of what is sacred is irrelevant, it then follows that for this law to be enforceable there must be a common accepted standard as to what is considered sacred by the community. Wonder how this law intends to establish such?

    I can see both sides of the argument for not wanting kids to hear profanity and also acknowledging that expletives serve a specific linguistic function that it would not make sense to censor.

    I think it is not too hard to understand why a person would not want young children to hear profanity. Young children repeat what they hear before they are able to understand and apply the social rules which tell them which kind of speech is acceptable where and when. This does not mean that their parents never want them to realize that such words exist or that such words do have legitimate linguistic functions.

    Which brings up the question of register. We as social animals do have different registers of speech that are appropriate for different settings and situations, and it seems reasonable to me that we could have a community standard for a register of speech that is acceptable in public places, just as we do with dress. I don’t know how that would interact with freedom of speech though. I acknowledge that you have a right to be profane if you choose to, but shouldn’t I have the right to not listen to you be profane if that is my choice and how could I make that choice in a public place where sound waves are in the public air and I can’t close my ears.

    Maybe not. I really don’t know what the answer is.

  27. `Kathryn Fenner

    No, Scout, it isn’t the utterer’s belief; it’s the intended audience’s belief that makes it profane, and I do not believe in America you can make true profanity illegal, per the Supreme Court. You also don’t have a right not to be exposed to free speech in public places. Think about it: how many people want to be exposed to protestors? The value to society of free speech outweighs your right to silence. At the same time, your right to free speech ends where it becomes unduly inflammatory, incites violence, etc. I just don’t think some kid saying, “Pass me the f-ing basketball” is unduly inflammatory.

    I do not use curse words except when I really mean business. The sort of premium cable speak, with an f bomb every sentence is unpleasant to me, and why, despite its good reviews, I couldn’t make it through a whole episode of Deadwood.

    Now, Susan G., in schools First Amendment rights are severely curtailed. Kids have very few rights in schools. A much lower standard applies there, so you can ban all kinds of things you couldn’t ban outside of a school.

  28. Bryan Cox

    Aside from the first amendment arguments previously addressed, since the conversation is moving more toward a specific discussion of profanity I’ll engage on that topic and submit this for your consideration — why is the word a** considered profanity, yet derriere is not?

    Both terms mean precisely the same thing. The only reason one is considered offensive and the other not is because we were taught the distinction between polite and profane as children.

    The reason for the distinction is simple: a** is rooted in the Anglo-Saxon term whereas derriere is the Norman term. After the Normans conquered Britain in 1066 it became faux pas to use Saxon terminology. Fast-forward through the centuries and we’re left with the terms, while we’ve forgotten the reason.

    We’re now contemplating throwing citizens into jail for uttering a Saxon vs. Norman term. The silliness literally boggles my mind.

    While I’m confident this attempt will be thwarted on first amendment grounds, I hope someone here will pause for a brief moment and reflect upon the absurdity at the root of it all. We’re talking about throwing individuals into jail because they used a subjectively “profane” word that does no harm to anyone. Again, we are going to throw people — just like you and me — into jail…because they used subjectively rude language.

    It’s this sort of mindless “tough on crime” thinking that explains why the United States has 5 percent of the world population and 25 percent of its prisoners.

    I completely understand and sympathize with the pure, yet short-sighted, motives of individuals who wish your children didn’t have to hear these things at a city park. However; the ripple effect across society if we allow “rude” actions to be criminalized would have devastating consequences on the liberty we now enjoy. I argue failing to pass that birthright on to our children would be a far greater tragedy than any discomfort we now bear tolerating the noise around us.

    It is my sincere hope there still exists a majority among us who agree.

  29. Kevin Knight

    Of course words are just words. Words are only forceful if the people listening to them allow them to be. If you weren’t offended by a word, then it wouldn’t have any power over you. And if these words are offensive to people because they’re usually used with force and in an aggressive manor, then surely words like kill, murder, rape, etc. should be far more offensive.
    I personally think that people are only offended by these words because they have always been told that they’re bad words. I have never heard a good reason why they’re bad though!

  30. Doug Ross

    Ask your kids whether they hear profanity every day in school.

    I’ll save you the trouble. They do.

    I’m 50 years old and can recall in that kind of language in elementary school. I wasn’t harmed by it and I never picked up the habit either.

    We had this discussion before – if you use profanity in private you are a hypocrite to think those words should be illegal.

    And for Brad to type the phrase “the law is the law and must be respected” is the ultimate in hypocrisy based on his opinions on illegal immigration. Apparently Brad believes a single curse word is worth more time to legislate and prosecute than illegally entering the country. The logical hoops you have to jump through to rationalize such thought are many.

    What would happen if everyone just minded their own business and stopped trying to project their own personal “stick-up-the-butt” morality? We’d be able to focus on real issues, maybe.

  31. bud

    This gets down to, once again, deciding what is profane or obscene. Kids under 30 don’t find certain words obscene that folks over 70 would never utter in public. I say draw the line where a genuine, bonafide threat is involved. Otherwise I side with those who say “words are just words”. If we banned everything that is construed as offensive we would never be allowed to cheer at a football game. Go Cocks is offensive in Clemson, not so much in Williams-Brice stadium. And it shouldn’t be illegal in either place.

  32. Silence

    Alexander Hamilton died for your right to drop F-bombs and say GD in public.

    Also, why ban “fighting words”? We should be allowed to duel in public. We would all be a little bit more polite, and dare I say, more civilized?

  33. Steven Davis

    Kathryn – I have a coworker who’s wife works at a pre-K school in Richland County. She says there’s nothing like being told. “F#&% you” by a serious 4 year old. And don’t bother talking to the parent (mother) because she’ll tell you the same thing. To them it’s cute, but then so is dressing the same 4 year old like a gangster thug.

  34. Phillip

    In general we obsess too much about the “profanity” and “obscenity” of individual words like the F word, the N word, etc. etc. while we’re strangely tolerant of the degradation of our political discourse, which could be said to be “obscene.”

    In the end, my child’s life is going to be impacted far less by hearing the occasional “f…” etc. than by the offensive garbage emanating from the mouths of the circus of freaks running for the GOP Presidential nomination, just to cite one example.

  35. Brad

    I think Doug’s onto something. Using gross language in public and simply being here without proper paperwork are pretty much on a par in terms of sheer heinousness. Or heinosity. Or whatever.

    I know one thing — I’m more bothered by obscenity heard in public places than I am by the sound of Spanish. Even if they’re throwing in the odd “carajo” here and there.

    And yes, the law is the law and must be respected by civilized people. And of course the place we should start is with making sure it’s possible for people with jobs waiting for them in this country to enter legally, rather than having a too-small quota or bureaucratic logjams that make a legal route impossible.

  36. Karen McLeod

    @Phillip–I warned earlier about the linguistic jungle. Instead of just a few words that we should save for highly emotive moments, we have many words, some apparently harmless, that are actually deadly.

  37. `Kathryn Fenner

    @Phillip –Like this?:

    “It would lead us to become a banana republic, in which administrations would become regimes and each regime would feel it perfectly appropriate to disregard decisions of courts staffed by previous regimes. That’s not what we are.”
    MICHAEL B. MUKASEY, President George W. Bush’s attorney general, on Newt Gingrich’s statement that the elected branches should be free to ignore judicial decisions. ”

    Of course, Nikki Haley is all about banana republics for those who can’t shop at Exotica.

  38. Doug Ross

    “Using gross language in public and simply being here without proper paperwork are pretty much on a par in terms of sheer heinousness. ”

    Unfortunately that is not an accurate representation of the situation.

    In the case of profanity, there is no clear way to determine what is or isn’t profanity. It is a law that would never hold up in court. An illegal immigrant is either illegal or is not. As soon as they cross the border without following the defined procedures, they are criminals. There is no grey area.

    As for the “proper paperwork”, that’s a total red herring. There is no proper paperwork for an illegal immigrant. They don’t have any paperwork because it doesn’t exist for them. They don’t have paperwork because they willingly have chosen to ignore the law. If it was a paperwork issue, all they would have to do is go get a copy of the paperwork.

    I think the reason you could never win a political election is because of loony opinions like this one. I don’t think you could find many people who would agree with you that a single swear word is more damaging than illegal immigrants who steal identities, drive without insurance, don’t pay all the taxes they are supposed to, and utilize tax dollars for services they are unauthorized to obtain.

  39. `Kathryn Fenner

    “I don’t think you could find many people who would agree with you that a single swear word is more damaging than illegal immigrants who steal identities, drive without insurance, don’t pay all the taxes they are supposed to, and utilize tax dollars for services they are unauthorized to obtain.”
    Okay, first, this is a city enforcement policy vs. a state infringement on federal jurisdiction. As Judge Richard Gergel pointed out, the feds don’t criminalize illegal status–it is a civil offense. SC is attempting to criminalize it.

    Of course, if an illegal steals an identity, drives w/o insurance, doesn’t pay all his or her taxes, etc., the same prosecution should b made as vs. a legal resident who commits similar CRIMES. It isn’t a “crime” to be here illegally. It is a civil offense.


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