Is profanity a form of expression protected by the First Amendment?
It can be, depending upon the circumstances and context. There is no general exception for profanity under the First Amendment unless the profanity qualifies as "fighting words." Fighting words are defined as words that by their very nature incite an immediate breach of the peace.
One case worth noting is the 1971 case of Cohen v. California, in which the U. S. Supreme Court reversed the conviction of a man who had been arrested for wearing a jacket in a courthouse bearing the words "F*** the Draft."1 The court noted that the profane word on the jacket was not directed at a particular individual and aroused no violent reaction.
However, public school students have greater restrictions placed on their First Amendment rights than adults. In fact, school officials gen-erally can prohibit vulgar and offensive student language under the Supreme Court’s 1986 decision in Bethel Sch. Dist. No. 403 v. Fraser.2 In that decision, the Supreme Court wrote that "it is a highly appropriate function of public school education to prohibit the use of vulgar and offensive terms in public discourse."3
In sum, one federal appeals court judge clarified the distinction between free speech and profanity quite well: "the First Amendment gives a high school student the classroom right to wear Tinker’s armband, but not Cohen’s jacket."4
403 U.S. 15 (1971).
478 U.S. 675 (1986).
Id. at 683.
Thomas v. Bd. Of Educ., Granville Cent. Sch. Dist., 607 F.2d 1043, 1057 (J. Newman, concurring).
Wednesday, December 11, 2013 | 11:13:32