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Swearing at an officer

Person yelling in car

What would happen if you let loose a profanity-laden rant at the officer who just pulled you over? You likely just increased the probability of getting a ticket for the original offense, but due to the First Amendment, you typically won’t face jail time, even if your state has a law against profanity.

A handful of states have laws banning swearing, though most of these statutes are very old in origin. For instance, Mississippi has a profanity law dating back to 1848 that says if any person uses vulgar and indecent language in the presence of two or more people, he or she can be fined up to $100 or placed in jail for up to 30 days.

But even if your state has outdated laws on the books regarding profanity, your First Amendment rights protect your free speech -- even when the vulgar language is directed at an officer. A few years back, a North Carolina judge found its state’s profanity statute (from 1913) an unconstitutional violation of freedom of speech. Lawmakers there have since been trying to repeal it.

Word of warning: You could be ticketed in most states for disorderly conduct if you incite violence with your swearing. If you use abusive, indecent, profane or vulgar language in a public place and incite a “breach of peace,” you can be cited for a misdemeanor in some states, such as Texas.

But if you can prove its part of your First Amendments rights, you may still get out of the ticket.  In June 2015 the Washington State Supreme Court ruled against an obstruction of justice case involving vulgar language. The case involved a 17-year-old who directed a slew of profanities at police officers and was cited for obstruction. The court noted that the “words may have been disrespectful, discourteous and annoying, but they are nonetheless constitutionally protected.”

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