Russia Bans Profanity — Why Don’t We?
Vladimir Putin is making news again, this time by banning foul language in Russia. According to CNN, he signed off this week on a new law that “bans swearing at arts, cultural and entertainment events” in the country. In the Kremlin’s words, the new measure “bans the use of obscene language.” While Putin is wrong on Ukraine, he’s right on profanity.
You make a film with obscene language in Russia, you won’t even be able to show it in a theater. Books, CDs and DVDs that contain profanity will have to be distributed in a sealed package with a visible warning label.
Violators are subject to fine of $70, while potty-mouthed officials can be dinged to the tune of $40 and businesses that are guilty can face fines of up to $1400.
The new law, scheduled to go into effect on July 1, echoes the prohibition against blasphemy found in the Ten Commandments (“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”) and will provide another example in which Russia’s public policy conforms more closely to biblical standards than Christian America.
Could a similar ban be instituted in the United States without violating the First Amendment? Of course. The free speech plank of the First Amendment was intended by the Founders to protect political speech, not profanity, vulgarity, obscenity or pornography.
The Founders were eager to ensure that the new republic would be characterized by robust political dialogue on all matters of public policy. All would be free to inject their ideas and convictions into public debate without fear that they would be censored and silenced by a draconian central government.
But the Founders would be aghast at the thought that anyone, anywhere, at any time would think they were crafting a document intended to allow the unlimited use of the F-bomb in polite society. If states want to ban foul language in public, under the Constitution as written (not as mangled by the courts) they are perfectly free to do so.
George Washington was known for prohibiting the use of profanity in his military. Said our first commander-in-chief and father of our country, “The foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing is a vice so mean and low that every person of sense and character detests and despises it.”
As General George Washington, he issued the following general order (not a recommendation, you will note):
The General is sorry to be informed that the foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing, a vice hitherto little known in our American Army is growing into fashion. He hopes that the officers will, by example as well as influence, endeavor to check it and that both they and the men will reflect that we can little hope of the blessing of Heaven on our army if we insult it by our impiety and folly. Added to this it is a vice so mean and low without any temptation that every man of sense and character detests and despises it. (Emphasis mine.)
At the time the First Amendment was enacted, there were laws against public profanity and blasphemy in every one of the original states, either by statute or common law. The Founders quite obviously saw no contradiction between the First Amendment and laws against profanity, for the simple reason that the Amendment was about protecting political speech, not gutter talk.
Massachusetts still has a law on its books – you could look it up – that prohibits blasphemy against God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures.
Section 36. Whoever wilfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, his creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than one year or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars, and may also be bound to good behavior.
To give another example, Pennsylvania’s law against profanity was drawn up by James Wilson, a signer of the Constitution and one of the original justices of the Supreme Court.
And in 1811, while the ink was barely dry on the First Amendment, the New York Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a man who had publicly proclaimed that “Jesus Christ was a bastard, and his mother must be a whore.”
Such laws were rarely enforced because they were rarely needed. But they were there because there are occasions in which public eruptions of vulgarity need to be restrained for the public good.
There are de facto prohibitions against swearing that governments enforce all the time. Profanity is will be punished in the classrooms of our government schools, for instance, and decorum does not allow profanity in legislative assemblies without severe repercussions. Try cussing out a cop and see what happens.
Few would doubt that a profanity-free culture would be better than the one we have now. As AFA’s president Tim Wildmon has pointed out, nobody walks out of a movie saying, “You know, that movie would have been so much better if they’d only thrown more cussing in there.”
The point here is not to advocate for any particular expression of this principle. The point here is that if want to ban profanity, we can. In the name of free speech, let the discussion begin.