All good, proper, and righteous Americans are invited to tell the County of Arlington in Virginia where it may shove its ordinance against saying bad words in public. The county made the news this week not because it has outlawed public swearing. It turns out it already had a law against swearing in public. But the news is that the county board has increased the fine from $100 to $250. As The Washington Post explains, the anti-swearing law is bundled in with its ordinance in public drunkenness, and they've updated the other part of the law:
The board said its long-standing Public Drunkenness and Profanity ordinance was constitutionally vague, and, in addition to increasing fines, it changed the wording from "drunkenness" to "intoxication" to more clearly cover intoxicants other than alcohol.
The board wrote in a memo on the ordinance that it's not more offended by profane language these days, but raised the fine so the county penalty would align with that of the state. Virginia state law defines intoxication or profane swearing in public as a Class 4 misdemeanor, which for a first-time offense is subject to a fine of up to $250. In Fairfax County, cursing will cost you $117.
And, as Washingtonian points out, Maryland isn't immune from such public profanity laws either. In Rockville, cursing or swearing on a sidewalk within earshot of someone else is a misdemeanor.
What is not clear in the coverage is what the bloody hell they think they're doing. A few years ago the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania successfully fought back against state troopers who were citing hundreds of people each year for profanity as violations of the First Amendment. They won an agreement from the police to stop. I've contacted the Virginia ACLU to see about a response to the news. I will update if I hear back.
Because we're also in a cultural place where we're examining how petty laws are used to torment the poor and minorities and for rapacious local governments to try to extract what little money they have, CityLab over at The Atlantic takes note of the racial disparity in the enforcement of such laws in Arlington County:
Of the total number of drunkenness arrests, 28 percent were of African Americans, while 70 percent were of white offenders—this in a county where African Americans make up only 8.9 percent of residents while whites make up 77.3 percent, according to Census figures.
When it comes to disorderly conduct arrests, which could include abusive language, the arrest rates are even more obscenely lopsided: 2,283 arrests of African Americans, or 55 percent of all disorderly conduct arrests, compared to 1,832 arrests of whites, or 44 percent.
Arlington would benefit from creating fewer reasons for police to transact with its residents, especially its black residents. According to an analysis of police data by USA Today last year, Arlington's arrest rate for African Americans was 202.9 per 1,000 residents 2011-2012, compared to 30.6 per 1,000 residents for arrests of non-blacks. Misdemeanor arrests are no small deal, given that failure to pay the fines could lead to driver's license suspensions—which you don't want to happen in a state like Virginia where you need a photo ID to vote, or to be able to drive to and from a job.
It should be remembered that laws like these have a history of racism embedded in them. Petty crimes like swearing in public, or just talking too loud in public, were among a long list of offenses that under "black codes" and "pig laws" would earn African Americans stiffer punishments than whites who committed the same offenses in the late 19th century.
Below, Middleborough, Mass., was named our Nanny of the Month for June 2012 after passing a similar law: