PHILADELPHIA - The Pennsylvania State Police has agreed to stop citing individuals for disorderly conduct for profanity and to provide mandatory training to its officers about free speech as part of a settlement the agency reached with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. The settlement enabled the ACLU to voluntarily dismiss a federal lawsuit against the state police over this practice today.

In May 2010 the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Luzerne County woman who was cited for disorderly conduct for yelling "asshole" at a motorcyclist who swerved close to her. The ACLU argued that profanity and profane gestures are constitutionally protected speech. According to information obtained by the ACLU through a Right to Know request, the PSP issued over 750 disorderly conduct citations for profanity in a recent one-year period.

"This will affect millions of Pennsylvanians for whom the state police provide the only law enforcement. Besides being a waste of police resources, these types of citations are often used by police to 'punish' people who argue with them. We are very happy the state police will proactively address this problem," said Mary Catherine Roper, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

As part of the settlement, the PSP has agreed to:

  • Notify its troopers that they cannot issue citations solely for the use of profane or offensive words or gestures, even if they are directed at law enforcement personnel;
  • Provide additional training to all troopers and cadets on the First Amendment right of individuals to express themselves using profane language or gestures;
  • Develop a mandatory training update for new and continuing state law enforcement officers about this policy; and
  • Revise existing training materials on the disorderly conduct statute to clarify that the term 'obscene' in the statute does not refer to profanity, indecent speech or gestures.

The PSP has also agreed to have its supervisors review all citations issued under the disorderly conduct statute for the next two years to ensure that they were not issued solely for the use of profane words or gestures. In addition, the PSP will pay $17,500 in damages and attorney fees.

The lawsuit involved Lona Scarpa, a Mocanaqua (Luzerne County) resident and mother of three. In October 2008, she and a friend were out walking when a motorcyclist who knew them drove past, swerving close as if to hit them, and shouted an insult. Scarpa responded by calling the motorcyclist an "asshole." That same day, she reported the incident to the Pennsylvania State Police, who serve as local law enforcement in the town. In addition to citing the motorcyclist, a state trooper mailed her a disorderly conduct citation for yelling "asshole." The citation noted that if convicted, she could face as much as ninety days and a fine up to $300. Scarpa challenged her conviction before a district magistrate and won, after hiring a lawyer to defend her.

"Getting the state police to go from 750 unconstitutional citations per year to zero will be difficult, but hopefully between the new internal controls and ACLU vigilance state troopers will learn you can't charge someone for sending a message just because it includes profanity," said ACLU-PA Legal Director Witold Walczak.

Scarpa is represented by Roper, Walczak and Valerie Burch of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

More about Scarpa v. Pawlowski, et al., including a copy of the settlement