Should swearing be against the law?

Man with tape over his mouth Does the ubiquity of swearing mean there is no point gagging it?

A High Court judge has ruled that people should not be punished for hurling obscenities in public because such words are now so common they no longer cause distress. Should the courts punish profanity?

Your mother might demand that you wash your mouth out.

But swearing in public, previously a criminal offence across the UK, appears to no longer offend the legal system as much as it once did.

Or so, at least, it would appear after Mr Justice Bean upheld the appeal of a defendant who was convicted for repeatedly using an expletive while being searched by police. The judge ruled that officers heard the term in question too frequently to be offended by it.

The decision, which has been strongly criticised by the Police Federation, follows a row over guidance issued by the Metropolitan Police, which advised that the courts were unlikely to rule that officers would be caused distress by most swear words.

London Mayor Boris Johnson has called for the advice to be revoked, and the Home Office is holding a consultation into section five of part I of the Public Order Act 1986, which had previously been used to prosecute those who swore at officers.

At the heart of the issue is the question of whether - for better or worse - terms that would once have been considered taboo are now so commonplace that they have lost their power to shock, giving the courts no business to tackle them.

A new swearword

  • BBC Radio 4's PM programme is appealing for listeners to send in new swear words of their own
  • They must not be compounds of existing swear words
  • Suggestions should be sent to

It's a proposition that is strongly - but politely - rejected by Peter Foot, chairman of the National Campaign for Courtesy, which lobbies for better manners in British life.

He has no interest in banning swearing in the privacy of one's home or in like-minded company. But he argues that the violence of some phrases and the upset they can cause mean it is right in certain circumstances for the courts to intervene.

"Obviously it can't be a legal thing if you hit your thumb with a hammer instead of the nail," Foot says.

"But the police have to be able to judge whether someone is being particularly abusive. And of course they would complain when it's combined with an aggressive manner towards them.

"If you want to do it in your own room, that's fine. But if you're in a place where you're in earshot of other people it can be very distressing."

Start Quote

Peter Capaldi and Paul Higgins in The Thick of It

Of course swearing's good. Just in terms of cadence, the way the words fall in a sentence, the poetry of language”

End Quote Ian Martin Co-writer of The Thick of It (above)

Defenders of swearing may cite their centuries-old right to free speech. In fact, laws against profanity have a long tradition in the UK.

In 1551 the Scottish Parliament banned "sweiring, execrationnis and blasphematioun of the name of God", punishable by a shilling fine or a spell in either prison or the stocks for those who could not pay.

England was initially more tolerant. In 1601 a bill "against usual and common swering" was introduced to the House of Commons, but failed to attract enough support from MPs. However, in 1623 an act was passed against swearing, which was rigorously enforced by the Puritans.

The abolition of censorship in the 1960s gave free expression to many words and phrases which previously had been deeply taboo. However, in recent years efforts have been made to eradicate profanity from British streets.

In 2008, council chiefs in Preston erected signs bearing that most Lancastrian of instructions: "No Effin' and Jeffin'." Police were empowered to hand out fixed penalty notices of up to £80 for public order offences by way of enforcement.

Nor is this the only UK local authority to have attempted to enforce such a clean-air policy. From 2005, new tenants of Brighton and Hove's Hollingdean estate were obliged to sign contracts agreeing not to swear in public. Those who broke this pledge were warned they could lose their homes.

And yet swearing has its enthusiasts, not least in the field of comedy. Though clearly not to everyone's taste, the likes of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's Derek and Clive sketches and George Carlin's Seven Dirty Words routine have influenced generations of humorists.

One of the most notable examples of this genre is the award-winning BBC political satire The Thick of It. Such was the dextrous use of industrial language by one of the show's writers, Ian Martin, that he was bestowed with the title of "swearing consultant".

Martin would never seek to defend anyone verbally abusing police officers. However, he cautions against blanket attacks on profanity - the lexicon of which, after all, derives power from its own waywardness.

"Of course swearing's good. Just in terms of cadence, the way the words fall in a sentence, the poetry of language," he says.

"Swearing is by definition an aggressive, transgressive act. Its impact depends entirely on context. There's a huge difference between watching someone swear on the telly and watching someone swear outside a primary school.

"In the end the whole 'grown up and clever' argument's a winner, isn't it? If your swearing can make people laugh it's a subversion of the transgression."

If Martin is right and humour undermines the shock value of taboo terms, it might follow that comedy, not the courts, is the best way of tackling verbal abuse.

Of course, others will seek more formal methods of redress. The debate will continue - very courteously, no doubt.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 428.

    "Should swearing be against the law?"

    It's ironic that my instant response to reading this headline was "**** off".

  • rate this

    Comment number 427.

    I do hope some of these comments are satire.
    The only reason I have a problem with swearing is that some people use it too much. We need words which are like that to get across annoyance.
    Anyone who is using the 'think of the children' argument needs to grow up. If your children are that sheltered, the horrors of the real world are going to ruin them. A word cannot hurt you only its intention can.

  • rate this

    Comment number 426.

    Erm...freedom of speech? Surely censorship of free discourse takes you into the realms of totalitarianism.

    I'm not sure what makes swear words offensive in any case. Taken in isolation they're mainly just colloquial terms for normal bodily parts, functions or actions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 425.

    Oh so next, they're censoring tv & monitoring what we do on the internet ?! Swearing is fine in my eyes, i don't like to be insulted by it, but that doesn't warrant it being made illegal, this country is falling apart! How about fixing the Justice system before you make stupid 'laws'

  • rate this

    Comment number 424.

    It is a lack of respect and I don't think that swearing in public or at the police is acceptable.
    They aren't just meaningless words as some on here would justify them.

    If you wouldn't say it to your granny when why should you say it to me or anyone else?

  • rate this

    Comment number 423.

    WT$,absurd nonsense.Reality check please.What next,not being allowed to have thoughts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 422.

    When you think about it, why is a 'swear word' actually a swear word?

    Because generation after generation have passed on that it is a swear word.

    But why is c#*! or f!#* actually rude?

    At the end of the day, it's just another four letter word isn't it?

    Just like lamp? or dent? What if convention all of a sudden said that these words were offensive?

  • rate this

    Comment number 421.

    I think there are still situations where swearing should be deemed unacceptable, what next, will pupils be allowed to swear at teachers? Reasonableness and boundaries and these seem to be sorely lacking these days but I still think (hope) that most reasonable people would refrain from swearing at the police.

  • rate this

    Comment number 420.

    Police officers can now be sworn at without breaching the law.

    When I next appear before a court, can I describe the judge as a ****ing ****ard without breaching the law?

    Both police and judges are simply law officers doing their job

  • rate this

    Comment number 419.

    I'm a standup comic and have been for 35 years and your going to try to stop me from swearing by the use of the legal system, i'd like to see you try ........Bring it on fuzzball

  • rate this

    Comment number 418.

    Nor is this the only UK local authority to have attempted to enforce such a clean-air policy. From 2005, new tenants of Brighton and Hove's Hollingdean estate were obliged to sign contracts agreeing not to swear in public. Those who broke this pledge were warned they could lose their homes.

    What a f@*!$#g p!$$ take! Oh and @414...nowt to do with Cameron...he hasn't said anything about it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 417.

    I hope the BBC is joking with posing this question? Firstly, it is not the role of the media to pose such questions. Secondly, the question is absurd as there is no way to police such a law unless you live in a society completely controlled by fear and police. Thirdly, why are the BBC wasting my licence fee with people writing such articles in place of real news. Finally. NO

  • rate this

    Comment number 416.

    Some years ago the BBC did some undercover filming at a police training college. One notable feature was the amount of effing and blinding used. One person seemed unable to produce a single sentence without putting effing in usually 2 or 3 times. You had to effing hear his effing words for yourself to effing believe it.

    Are the police offended by swearing? Not effing likely.

  • Comment number 415.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 414.

    I thought Cameron wanted society to have the power of choice and introduce local enforcement of policy. But he's trying to tell us what not to say, and how to say it. Make up your mind .... I don't know .... freakin' politicians!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 413.

    As a retired Met Police officer I remember it was always wise to find a little old lady to be insulted when arresting someone for Insulting words or behaviour, some people believe the little old lady was invisible and only existed in the officers mind, on an occasion when the little old lady did turn up to court, the Stipendiary magistrate said "madam I have been waiting to meet you for 30Years"

  • Comment number 412.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 411.

    After the weekends events perhaps mr bean thinks officers should be used to getting stabbed and the offender should be let off .

  • rate this

    Comment number 410.

    Ahh, Mr Bean. How apt.

    It's not clever and it's not funny.

  • rate this

    Comment number 409.

    My Father thinks swearing is sign of ignorance and swearing to express your point of veiw, is a sign of a poor ability to express yourself.
    People who cause the most offence, are the ones who use language as a tool of offence with out the need to swear, these people can be extremly obnoxioues.


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