While there are certain places and occasions where swearing is considered rude—a court arraignment might not be a good time to let the expletives fly, for example—there’s typically no legal prohibition against it. One major exception is Virginia, where a law banning profanity in public has been in effect since 1792.
Now, it's the language of the law itself that opponents are finding offensive. And it's about to change.
Public cursing is currently a Class 4 misdemeanor that demands residents of the state refrain from using "profane swearing," though no examples are cited. Violations are punishable by a $250 fine. Last month, The Virginia Senate voted to repeal the law. If Governor Ralph Northam signs the bill, it will go into effect July 1.
While this may seem like one of the frivolous laws that would go ignored in modern society, Arlington County law enforcement has actually charged three residents with cursing in recent years. At Virginia Beach, signs caution against cursing. And in 2017, a reporter got into a physical altercation with police officers in Fairfax County, Virginia, following an argument. Officers could be heard on video cautioning the man to refrain from using profanities or risk going to jail.
“F-ck this,” the reporter responded. (He was charged with disorderly conduct and avoiding arrest, not for swearing.)
In 2017, WAMU reported that the law might sometimes be used as a catch-all charge for people who are guilty of public intoxication, as both public drunkenness and public swearing seem to go hand-in-hand. But it's hard to know exactly how many people have been charged with this misdemeanor.
The bill to repeal has failed annually since 2016. Now, it appears it’s gained bipartisan support, and Virginians will soon be free to use crass language to their heart’s content. A ban on spitting, however, looks like it will stand.