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.


More on This Story

In today's Magazine


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • Comment number 548.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 547.

    Think about some of our classic comedy series - Porridge, Only Fools, Open all hours, Rising Damp. The script writers avoided swearing and foul language and the humour catered to all age groups. In fact swearing and foul language would have totally undermined the viewing figures which were all far better than the current stand up so-called comedians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 546.

    Elliot Wengler you completely miss the point of why people swear. It's precisely because they want to add something 'naughty' as you call it to add emphasis or meaning to what they are saying. Calling someone a fool is not the same as using a strong swear word. Swear words ARE different & assimilating them into normal use would require, replacement 'naughty' words.

  • rate this

    Comment number 545.

    im a 40yr old builder
    /pc gamer and i dislike swearing ,i seen these police docos and even they police swear on camera . so all hopes lost

  • rate this

    Comment number 544.

    Indecent exposure - using nudity to "harass, alarm or distress" others is also an offence against the Public Order Act of 1986. So will Mr, sorry, Judge Bean's ruling result in flashers not being prosecuted because nudity is so common it no longer causes distress?

  • rate this

    Comment number 543.

    @450, Offensive to third parties. Can 2 black people be arrested if a black bystander hears "black"?

    Perhaps in public, my brother should call me a "non-practising homosexual" and my retort should be "at least I was born with blonde hair and blue eyes and don't tan quite so easily".

    Even without profanity someone will be offended by my sexuality and my brother's questionable paternity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 542.

    Just another example of the general decline in standards. What ever happened to good manners and considering people other than yourself?

  • rate this

    Comment number 541.

    THe judge is a complete muppet and is one reason why so many standards fall, because such muppets have undermined basic decency over many years via their attrocious reasoning.

    The law is the law, it is the judges job to uphold the law & NOT make it up as in due course of numptyism.

    So swearing is common, but so is scum, & the 2 generally go together!!!

  • Comment number 540.

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

  • Comment number 539.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 538.

    521. Billy The Bull
    >>>Swearing football matches is rife...the chanting to upset Keegan made me..utterly sickened and ashamed.

    Indeed, but it's professional football we are talking about, a game calculated to extract as much cash as possible from the least intelligent and least free-thinking in our society & put it in the pockets of prima donna players and cynical businessmen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 537.

    The court simply ruled that swearing in those circumstances is not contrary to the Public Order Act. Most police officers will openly admit they are no offended by it in court. The police often misinterpret section 5 as being a ban on swearing. It's not. It has a specific definition. Swearing used to be used only as an insult but not anymore. I'd rather people didn't say 'innit' but c'est la vie!

  • rate this

    Comment number 536.

    If the yobs can swear and abuse the police what chance have Joe Public got and the Government want the public to stand up against the yobs, sorry not worth it getting all that abuse and they get off with a slap on the wrist. I think this Judge should be struck off, I suppose he lives away in some cosy upperclass hamlet, so why worry about the the law abiding.

  • rate this

    Comment number 535.

    People should not be allowed to use any language they like to a police officer. They deserve respect just like anyone else.
    A comedian swearing on stage as part of an act is entirely different. That is to entertain not to offend. They just need to warn of strong language when the show is advertised.

  • rate this

    Comment number 534.

    Swearing is as much a sign of ones education and volcabulary as is not being able to name everything by it's scientific name is. Should I see everyone else as less educated becuase they can't tell me the scientific name for the Venus Fly Trap without consulting Wikipedia? I think not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 533.

    421Just_Me-"...what next, will pupils be allowed to swear at teachers?.."

    Rumour has it that many already do and therein lies the root of the isssue?

    It's all part of a general disrespect for 'authority' which has grown over the last couple of decades, it's now two fingers up to all 'authority'

    For chidren, 'authority' used to include all 'grown ups'

  • rate this

    Comment number 532.

    Those watching the police style documentaries will often see the police using these type of comments themselves often in very mundane circumstances. caller on the vine show stated last time he heard such language was by a police man at football. Ex cop on the show claims " football hooligans incite trouble" or words to that one had even suggested that, typical attitude in such matters.

  • rate this

    Comment number 531.

    stracepipe 522.
    I can empathise with your predicament but the director has probably never been challenged about his foul language which is a form of bullying in the workplace.
    If you and your colleagues despise this person then sign a "Round Robin" and send it to your HR Manager insisting on some appropriate action.
    Bullies can and must be tamed!

  • rate this

    Comment number 530.

    Swearing AT someone is abusive (and often a form of bullying) therefore it should be treated by the courts as "abuse". Swearing as a demonstration of ones lack of vocabulary or puerile inability to find suitable descriptive adjectives should be mildly tolerated, as it enables instant character assessments to be made.

  • rate this

    Comment number 529.

    The way these words were been used were intended to be insulting and offensive.

    So why not let the police take such people down a dark ally and beat the life out of them on the grounds that they were offended by what the person was saying which happens in some countries.

    The police officers defence would be he provoked me and I lost it for a moment


Page 9 of 36



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.