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Freedom of Foul Speech?

December 17, 2014 | Posted In Criminal Law - Criminal Law

More than five years ago, a Morris County man was found guilty under a decades-old state law that makes it a criminal offense to use curse words or foul language in front of a young child. Now, the man and his attorneys are attempting to withdraw his original plea and overturn the existing law.

The statute, N.J.S.A. 9:6-3, has been on the books for the last 70 years.  It states that a non-parent adult can be charged with a fourth-degree crime and subject to a finding of neglect if that adult routinely uses “profane, indecent, or obscene language” in front of a minor child in that adult’s care. The use of such foul language can be determined to be a detriment to a child’s morals.

The Case

The defendant was originally charged with first-degree sexual assault on a minor, second-degree endangering the welfare of a child and third-degree sexual contact with a child. According to the court documents, he had allegedly performed sexual acts on a 13-year-old boy for a period of time in 1999, when the boy was in his foster care, the penalty for which could have been up to 20 years in jail.

In 2009, prosecutors offered the defendant a one-day chance to plead guilty to N.J.S.A. 9:6-3 and admit that he had used foul language to debauch the morals of the boy. At that time, the defendant admitted to cursing in front of the boy and was sentenced to 1,231 days in prison.  He had already served this time from his original indictment because he was unable to post bail.

Violation of the First Amendment

The defendant's criminal defense attorneys now argue that the statute is unconstitutional, as it limits a person’s rights under the First Amendment. His defense team is working with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to present their case to the state Supreme Court to have the statute updated. Times have changed since the statute was originally passed, and the world today reflects a vastly different use of language and expression, especially in public and in print. Nowadays, the use of a swear word is fairly typical, and criminal defense attorneys in New Jersey argue that this should not be grounds for a felony charge.

The lawyers involved in the case also argue that the defendant never admitted to what he said when he entered his guilty plea. He could have uttered even the mildest curse word because the law does not make a stipulation for how foul the language must be to warrant criminal charges. The judge who took the defendant's confession should have asked him to be specific.

N.J.S.A. 9:6-3 would make it illegal for people to swear at home, in front of the television, in an argument, in the course of telling a joke, at a sports game or any other venue in front of minor children. In today’s society, the use of a curse word should not necessarily warrant a criminal charge. The Supreme Court is currently deliberating its course of action.

At Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, our criminal defense lawyers keep up with current rulings in the state Supreme Court that could potentially impact our clients facing criminal charges. For more information, contact an attorney at HCK today. 

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