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 528.

    For people who have not seen it I would heartily recommend watching the esteemed Mr Fry's tv show on swearing. If Mr Fry says it it's true..... Swearing is colourful and enriches the English language.

  • rate this

    Comment number 527.

    Well it seems this country is getting softer by the day! Most decent people do not want to listen to others shouting and swearing in public places to their annoyance. these judges clearly don't see the real world as it stands now, which is clearly having a negative effect on our society. this is partially why this country is getting so common.

  • rate this

    Comment number 526.

    Swearing should be outlawed. I live in a mixed area socially and economically. There are many young families, and a fair bit of poverty. I was in my local post office when I heard a mother using the F word, very loudly, in general conversation - and in front of her young children.

  • rate this

    Comment number 525.

    No, the opposite. I have never understood why we discriminate levels of acceptability against a few particular words with enhanced meanings of their counter parts.
    Swearing should be encouraged as the idea that certain words should be considered naughty is as moronic as considering someone differently via racism. You can't argue logically for either. Let's stop recognising this moronic concept.

  • rate this

    Comment number 524.

    I take it that the 'swearing is OK' brigade would find it acceptable if teachers of their little preciouses used an expletive in every sentence of every lesson; or for their the doctor to tell them to p*** off because there was nothing ***king wrong with them?

  • rate this

    Comment number 523.

    Some seem to think that what their version of a language is, is the 'Proper language' and that it is a shared value by the whole of society. In other words if they don't speak like you then they shouldn't speak or are less... nice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 522.

    One of our company directors spends all day using the f and c word in an open plan office with most of the invective being aimed at colleagues who are not present. It is very demoralising and indicative of his spectacularly low intellect and poor management skills. I despise the man. Unfortunately, this isn't the only UK firm I've worked for where the senior management have been uneducated yobs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 521.

    Swearing on the terraces at football matches is rife but if a player swears at the referee then he gets the RED CARD and quite rightly so. Is this double standards or simply an indication of how people have become desensitised?
    I recall a match between Man Utd and Liverpool just after Kevin Keegan's father had died and the chanting to upset Keegan made me feel utterly sickened and ashamed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 520.

    re 510. MIKE WHITEHEAD
    >>>why should we put up with swearing at all. If i swore i would have been put to bed with no tea.

    Mike. So would I!

    But, that was then, this is now. The world changes and moves on. If someone is offending others, I would ask that person to stop. If someone is swearing, but not offending anyone present, let them go ahead and look ill-educated - their problem, not mine.

  • rate this

    Comment number 519.

    How else are we to address our politicians if we are not allowed to swear?

  • rate this

    Comment number 518.

    I like to tell a c..t he's a c..t by yelling c..t at the c..t!

  • rate this

    Comment number 517.

    Swearing is not just aggressive it is also vulgar. We don't appreciate someone mooning us on the street, so why should humour be used to cover up vulgar language? For those of us who appreciate decent speech it is best just to avoid certain TV channels and most pubs, but even the office is no longer a safe haven from such decadence. This is not a nice country to live in any more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 516.

    There are many way of being objectionable and the use of foul language is just one of them. Being polite even when affronted by the words or actions of others or the happenstance of ill fortune is not impossible it just takes a little self control, sadly this is not an ability possessed by too many today.

  • rate this

    Comment number 515.

    I would like to see the Judge react to swearwords in his court. I bet he wouldn' say "carry on that's perfectly acceptable Queens English" THE DEFENDANT WOULD BE SENT DOWN IMMEDIATELY.

  • rate this

    Comment number 514.

    All the comments about freedom of speech totally miss the point - the idea is that public order laws protect the freedom of others to go about their lives without being insulted or offended. Of course the meaning of words changes over time, but the current context of what we all know are 'swear' words is that they are exactly that - the F word, the. Word, etc. remain insulting and offensive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 513.

    505.Frank Lund

    I assume the word is probably not in common usage that's why the BBC didn't use it. It would be like me trying to be rude by saying, "you big tippity twitch", they need to use words everyone can understand without offence. Out of curiosity what is the word? Surely it won't be censored by the BBC modbots.

  • rate this

    Comment number 512.

    The judge is a fool. If it does not cause distress then i assume this idiot is quite happy to have foul language banded around the court room? No i didn't think so. Swearing is not common place to most people and i for one find it offensive and cringe when someone uses it. We all know when and where it is acceptable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 511.

    A while ago on a busy Saturday night a girl was on the floor, face covered in blood, presumably injured in a fight, certainly needing assistance. A police officer walking towards the incident heard someone nearby using 'bad language' (not to him I add) and rather than ignore it and help the injured girl he stopped and warned the person for swearing. Priorities all wrong. THAT offended me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 510.

    This judge must live in a world of his own, why should we put up with swearing at all. If i swore i would have been put to bed with no tea. The morals in this country is appalling so we can't expect anything else in this country. Just because people swear does not make it acceptable. I wonder how this judge would feel if everyone in his court continued swearing. Not many high standards left in UK

  • rate this

    Comment number 509.

    A good example of what was considered rude 130 years ago is W.S.Gilbert's line in "Pinafore" where the Admiral sings.. "Never Never Never Swear a Big, Big, 'D""
    Damn! Swearing laws were strict back then.

    And that's the point really. They ARE just words, but if the people you're with or around don't want to hear them, then don't use them. There's ever such a lot of others to choose from.


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