States that Criminalize Profanity
It may be surprising to read that certain states still have, or have recently had, a section in their legislature that criminalizes the use of profanity or obscene words. Michigan is one such state, which until December 2015, had a statute that would find the offender guilty of a misdemeanor if that person used indecent, vulgar, or insulting language in the presence of a child or a woman. Of course, this was eventually repealed, as a case brought forth in 2002 where a canoeist had sworn at a person was brought before the court.
It was dismissed because the vulgarity was considered unconstitutional, and the law was archaic and vague. Under this law, it would be open to interpretation that only men could be punished if they are swearing in the presence of a female or a young child.
North Carolina is another such state that still has a law regarding public roads and highways. The law will find the person guilty of a class 3 misdemeanor if the person were to swear, yell or use profane language in the presence or earshot of two or more people. In 2016, South Carolina defended a law in their governing documents that found a person guilty if that person was using profanity near a church or school. This was appealed but was sustained because they determined that the defendant had used "fighting words" within hearing distance of another person. In this case, freedom of speech is not usually assured.
History and Federal Stance on Profanity
Until the 1970s, the United States government had found profanity and obscene language to be criminal acts in certain situations. While this may still apply to "fighting words," which can often be considered genuine threats to the safety of one's physical person, family, or valuable items, profane and obscene language is a gray area. Traditionally, it was unbecoming of a person to be boisterous, loud, or profane in public, especially in the presence of more vulnerable or distinguished persons. While this may still be culturally true in some respects today, the court has found that using profanity in most cases would be unconstitutional, as it goes against the first amendment.
The federal government aims to set forth regulations for states to create laws surrounding this issue and take it on a case-by-case basis. If a person were to walk around and scream profanities at no one in particular, that person might not be found under criminal charges for their words, but they could be detained and found guilty of such things as a nuisance or disturbing the peace. Places of worship or educational institutions with vulnerable students are another focus, as the swear words may not be dangerous. Still, if someone is yelling profane words or phrases towards another person in these areas, it can be interpreted as a danger to the safety of the worshippers or the students.