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Arlington Assholes Up Bullshit Fine For Swearing in Public

swearing-profanity-cartoon

It could cost you $250 to say “F- Arlington” if you happen to be in Arlington, Virginia when you say it.

Washingtonian (“Arlington Cracks Down on Salty Language“):

Uttering some of the more expressive words in the English language will cost you up to $250 if you say them in Arlington, now that county officials have upped their fines on public uses of profanity. The Arlington County Board just approved a measure increasing penalties for public intoxication and blue language from $100 to $250.

Even if Arlington is sacrificing its reputation as an urbanist’s dream community, its leaders have not given up their mission to clean up its residents sometimes-naughty antics. The code change adopted during Saturday’s board meeting came after the Arlington Police Department reported making 664 arrests for public inebriation and foul-mouthed talk in 2014.

There are myriad problems with this.

First, while I suppose being inebriated makes people less mindful of their language, why on earth are public intoxication and profanity linked in the same ordinance? One drastically increases the likelihood of killing someone or getting killed while the other could possibly offend someone’s delicate sensibilities.

Second, while it’s no doubt irksome to some to hear foul language—especially in the presence of their wives or children—the fact of the matter is that words that were simply not uttered in mixed company a quarter century ago are now routinely heard in our pop culture and from the mouths of such personages as vice presidents of the United States and leaders of the United States Senate—sometimes at one another. (Indeed, I was mildly surprised to hear the F-word used at least twice during a movie preview while waiting for another flick to start this past weekend. Granted, it was an R-rated movie but previews have always been “rated for all audiences.”)

Third, given how common the use of these swear words are nowadays, this is a recipe for selective enforcement.*

Fourth, the law doesn’t specify which words are considered profane.

Oddly, however, the Arlington law comports with Virginia State Code, which makes these acts a Class 4 misdemeanor.

§ 18.2-388. Profane swearing and intoxication in public; penalty; transportation of public inebriates to detoxification center.

If any person profanely curses or swears or is intoxicated in public, whether such intoxication results from alcohol, narcotic drug or other intoxicant or drug of whatever nature, he shall be deemed guilty of a Class 4 misdemeanor. In any area in which there is located a court-approved detoxification center a law-enforcement officer may authorize the transportation, by police or otherwise, of public inebriates to such detoxification center in lieu of arrest; however, no person shall be involuntarily detained in such center.

Once upon a time, this would have seemed normal. Now, though, it seems plain crazy.

_______________

*UPDATE: The Atlantic‘s Brentin Mock expands on this nicely:

Arlington’s new $250 fine comes after county police there reported making 664 arrests for public intoxication and profanity last year. The Virginia State Police report “2014 Crime in Virginia” lists 669 arrests throughout the county, the grand majority of them at colleges and universities.

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.

Now, I’m dubious of bimodal statistics and don’t want to leap to conclusions here given that we don’t know anything else about the incidents in question other than race. There may be a legitimate reason for the disparity in arrest rates. But, as Mock notes, there’s a history here:

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 failureto 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. When poor black southerners couldn’t afford to pay the fines, they got sucked into the vortex of prison camps and convict leasing—which essentially placed them back in slavery.

Beyond that, as Scott Shackford notes at Reason, these statutes are likely unconstitutional:

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.

Surely, there are better things for Arlington’s leaders to do with their time?

 

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Scott says:

    I will await the inevitable cell phone footage of the members of the Arlington County Board engaged in profanity.

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  2. rodney dill says:

    No shit?

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  3. KM says:

    I got cash to spare and a healthy disrespect for legislators and law enforcement who would waste the time, money and effort to enforce such unconstitutional asshattery instead of dealing with real problems. Who wants to go on a road trip and see how many F-bombs we can drop striking a blow for Liberty?

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  4. Hal_10000 says:

    Like all kinds of minor ordinances, traffic fines, etc, I expect this in no way to be used to grab black people by the ankles, turn them upside down and shake them vigorously for revenue.

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  5. joe says:

    I’m not a fan of profanity, but I am a fan of the 1st Amendment. It would seem that Virginia’s profanity law is in direct conflict with the 1st Amendment. This was the case in NC:
    http://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/judge-strikes-down-nc-ban-public-profanity

    That said, please be respectful to other people.

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  6. Lynn Eggers says:

    “especially in the presence of their wives or children”

    Yes, we of the wifely persuasion have such delicate ears, and would never, ever use such language ourselves.

    phooey!

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  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Third, given how common the use of these swear words are nowadays, this is a recipe for selective enforcement.*

    I wonder where Arlington gets its construction workers from? ‘Cause I guaranf***intee you, we are some of the most foulmouthed sons of b***es you ever heard.

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  8. James Joyner says:

    @Lynn Eggers: Most women under 50 I know swear quite a bit, too. Still, a lot of men who wouldn’t otherwise mind the swearing get their dander up when it’s done in the presence of their wives and girlfriends.

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  9. John Peabody says:

    James notes that the movie previews have been “rated for all audiences.” I’ve noticed that working for years. But, I noticed last weekend that that the MPAA slide said “This Preview has been rated for use with this feature”…clearly a catchall way to spice up the previews for an R-rated audience.

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  10. Gavrilo says:

    The Arlington County, VA Board of Commissioners consists of four Democrats and one Independent. And, yet they vote for an ordinance that is undeniably racist and probably unconstitutional! Hmmm.

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  11. Tyrell says:

    @Lynn Eggers: Years ago my mother got real upset when she heard some of the language that President Nixon used. I had a PE teacher who used bad language regularly, but if he caught us using it we had ten laps after school. I also know a primary school teacher who uses sailor type language all the time around the students.

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  12. Tillman says:

    I was mildly surprised to hear the F-word used at least twice during a movie preview while waiting for another flick to start this past weekend. Granted, it was an R-rated movie but previews have always been “rated for all audiences.”

    Exactly what John Peabody said. It comes down to having two different sets of previews to go with films now: the theater advertising upcoming flicks it intends to show (these are the “approved for all audiences” previews usually), and previews bundled into the preamble of the film itself by the studio. They now say crap like “The following has been approved for appropriate audiences” or something similar.

    Also why movie previews now take up twenty minutes of time, and why I don’t bother seeing movies in theaters very often anymore.

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  13. Rafer Janders says:

    @Tyrell:

    also know a primary school teacher who uses sailor type language all the time around the students.

    Like lubber, ahoy, avast, and matey?

    Is it aaarrrrr-rated?

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  14. Franklin says:

    @Lynn Eggers: My dear old ma, who would be around 80 years old, was heard to say ‘shit’ on at least two occasions. Somehow she didn’t get struck by lightning.

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  15. michael reynolds says:

    Once again, it’s not the word itself, it’s the intent behind the word. There is no such thing as a bad word. There is no such thing as profanity.

    This is all the weird remnants of prohibitions against blasphemy. The reason “blasphemy” was such a problem for the power structure is that every time someone blasphemed and was not struck by lightning, it brought into question the assumption that God existed or cared. Blasphemy threatened a power structure built on piety.

    Utterly asinine law.

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  16. wr says:

    @John Peabody: “James notes that the movie previews have been “rated for all audiences.” I’ve noticed that working for years. But, I noticed last weekend that that the MPAA slide said “This Preview has been rated for use with this feature”…clearly a catchall way to spice up the previews for an R-rated audience.”

    They’ve been using this for a few years, apparently using it to replace the “red band” R trailer.

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  17. wr says:

    @Gavrilo: You can’t imagine how much it would cost me to tell you what I think of this comment and its author in Arlington.

    Or how worth it it would be.

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  18. stonetools says:

    Obviously, the Arlington Police Department has caught all the murderers, robbers, burglars, and rapists, so they have free time to spend on enforcing this law. Are they going to make being ugly a criminal offense next? (I’d really have to stay out of Arlington then).

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  19. James Pearce says:

    @wr:

    But, I noticed last weekend that that the MPAA slide said “This Preview has been rated for use with this feature”…clearly a catchall way to spice up the previews for an R-rated audience.”

    Inside baseball: I think this is due to technology.

    in the old mechanical, photo-chemical days, cost-effectiveness pretty much meant the trailers were for a very general audience. It made no sense to have two different versions of trailer when that meant twice the celluloid. Nowadays, when all this stuff is programmed and automated and digital, it’s very easy to put R rated (red band) trailers in front of an R-rated film.

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  20. Gavrilo says:

    @wr:

    Aww. Poor widdle guy is upset that I pointed out it’s a bunch of rich, white Democrats perpetuating such a historically racist law. It’s ok. You can drop some f-bombs around here. No one will mind.

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  21. James Pearce says:

    @Gavrilo: It’s no great feat, Gavrilo, to be able to count. So you noticed there’s some Democrats on the council….

    What’s the next step?

    At any rate, finally got around to reading the agenda item and I think we all got taken. (tooken?) It changes “drunkeness” to “intoxicated,” you know, to cover glue-sniffers and the like, and “the language defining penalties would be simplified.”

    The document doesn’t mention increasing penalties for language at all. (Although, I suppose the penalties for a conviction under this statue would be higher under the new “simplified” structure.)

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  22. wr says:

    @James Pearce: I think you’re right…

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  23. wr says:

    @Gavrilo: “You can drop some f-bombs around here.”

    How funny. I’ve thought for years that using the phrase “f-bomb” pretty much defines the speaker as an idiot. It’s a test that works every time.

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  24. Lynn Eggers says:

    @James Joyner: “Most women under 50 I know swear quite a bit, too. Still, a lot of men who wouldn’t otherwise mind the swearing get their dander up when it’s done in the presence of their wives and girlfriends.”

    Right … THEY can swear in front of them, but no one else can.

    Neither of my brothers — both in their 70s — would ever, ever use a swear word. I have to say … hearing a grown person say, coyly, “the f-word” is more bothersome than the word.

    I think they got it from our father. Dad graduated from the Naval Academy in 1921 and used to quote one of his professors:

    “If a gentleman is angry, he says ‘damn.’
    If he’s very angry, he says ‘god damn.’
    But, for God’s sake, gentlemen, don’t say ‘shit.'”

    Dad was very upset that JFK attributed his bad language to having been in the navy. “Not MY navy,” he would say.

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  25. Lynn Eggers says:

    @Tyrell: “Years ago my mother got real upset when she heard some of the language that President Nixon used.”

    My mother was playing bridge with the other old ladies one day when one of them said, “oh damn,” quickly adding, “as the young people say nowadays.”

    My mother put her cards down, looked at the other woman and said, “I thought all the young people said ‘oh shit.'”

    My mother was not as uptight as my dad.

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  26. Lynn Eggers says:

    “Dad graduated from the Naval Academy in 1921 and used to quote one of his professors:”

    A quote from another Annapolis professor:

    “A gentleman would as soon spit on the ballroom floor as bow to a lady with his heels apart.”

    Dad was from another generation.

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  27. JohnMcC says:

    @Lynn Eggers: My Dad was a Citadel grad. Class of ’43 – took final exams, got a bus/train ticket to their next step into WW2 while finishing their last meal, off they went. But no profanity. And always a clean, pressed, folded while linen handkerchief. What a bunch of guys!

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  28. Lenoxus says:

    @Gavrilo: Indeed, it is often the case that Democratic local councils are responsible for these kinds of laws with racist effects.

    I would love for Republicans to make an issue out of it. But you’re likelier to see them attack Obama for excessive bombing of foreigners.

    To the GOP, Democtats will always be the soft-on-crime party of “crying racism” (and they hope you don’t think too much about the implications of those two lines of accusation often being bundled together).

    I’m guessing your point was more “only liberals think laws like this can be racist, it doesn’t even mention race anywhere in the law and a higher arrest rate is probably due to higher rate of breaking the ordinance” rather than “Democrats beed to take a serious look in the mirror and improve on this.”

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  29. First, while I suppose being inebriated makes people less mindful of their language, why on earth are public intoxication and profanity linked in the same ordinance? One drastically increases the likelihood of killing someone or getting killed while the other could possibly offend someone’s delicate sensibilities.

    Didn’t you know, James? This is the 21st century. Offending delicate sensibilities is now the highest of high crimes. Welcome to the future.

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  30. de stijl says:

    I’m imagining sanitized old-timey gangsters wandering about Arlington quoting Johnny Dangerously:

    I would like to direct this to the distinguished members of the panel: You lousy cork-soakers. You have violated my farging rights. Dis somanumbatching country was founded so that the liberties of common patriotic citizens like me could not be taken away by a bunch of fargin iceholes… like yourselves…

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  31. de stijl says:

    @Gavrilo:

    The Arlington County, VA Board of Commissioners consists of four Democrats and one Independent. And, yet they vote for an ordinance that is undeniably racist and probably unconstitutional! Hmmm.

    Is this the snarky version of “Democrats are the Real Racists(tm)?”

    There are valid reasons for public intoxication laws and they should be mainly enforced by putting drunk people into cabs or quietly informing people that they should go home and please don’t disturb the peace.

    I don’t want drunken folks wandering about my yard swearing loudly, but I don’t want them to go to jail; I want them to go home and sleep and then feel really ashamed and stupid the next morning. You know, have to ask their friends, “What did I do last night? Do I have to apologize to anyone?”

    Where these laws become pernicious is where they are used to enhance charges to someone of any melanin persuasion, or to charge a normal Joe / Jo who is melanin-challenged, but is otherwise law-abiding but being uppity anyway.

    This was a change to the fine amount, not enacting a new law. If I were on the council, I would have done my best to put the kibosh on the whole thing. They just thought they were updating the fine on a law that’s been on the books since whenever; super routine stuff, and then the press picked it up as kind of a goof and made it a thing that they didn’t even realize at the time could ever, ever be a thing.

    I’m against laws that can be used by a bad cop having a good day, or a good cop who just thought that he was being disrespected, to eff with people who don’t deserve to go to jail for being rowdy or uppity. I could give two bits for whomever voted for it – D or R.

    The council was increasing the fine for a law already on the books. They were probably in bureaucratic pro forma mode. They should have thought about it some more. I seriously doubt that the Democrats on the council were thinking, “Hey, we already have these folks on our voting plantation. Let’s kick ’em some more and see how much they’ll take. C’mon, like they’re going to vote for those other guys?”

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  32. Tom says:

    I’m sure this isn’t the kind of thing that would be abused by sensitive earred citizens + aggressively earnest cops:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/15/mom-arrested-for-swearing_n_5681837.html

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  33. Gavrilo says:

    @de stijl:

    I don’t know why you’re trying to convince me. I didn’t write the post, nor did I write the piece in The Atlantic arguing that these laws are historically racist. Truth be told, I had no idea what the make-up of the Arlington County Commission was until I looked it up. I found it interesting that neither Joyner nor the piece in The Atlantic saw the need to inform us that the people who actually passed this ordinance were Democrats. I wondered if the tone around here would change when the usual suspects learned the facts. Judging by @Hal_10000: earlier comment about shaking down black people for more revenue and your comment giving the Arlington Couny Commissioners a pass, I think I know the answer.

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  34. James Joyner says:

    @Gavrilo: You do realize I’m not a Democrat, right? It never occurred to me to look up the party composition of the county commission since party doesn’t tend to matter a whole hell of a lot at the hyper-local level. But knowing that they were Democrats doesn’t change my opinion of things in the least.

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  35. de stijl says:

    @Gavrilo:

    Do you agree that these are BS laws that have been historically misused and are currently abused and should be rescinded no matter which party brought them to the table?

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