A mundane update to a long-standing Arlington ordinance went viral on the internet yesterday when news organizations started erroneously implying that the county was trying to crack down on public cursing.
As ARLnow.com previously reported, the County Board on Saturday considered — and approved — an update to its public drunkenness and profanity ordinance.
The update, meant to bring Arlington in line with a Virginia law that’s on the books throughout the Commonwealth, replaced “drunkenness” with “intoxication” so that police could charge someone who’s under the influence of drugs, rather than just alcohol. It also made the crime a Class 4 misdemeanor, upping the maximum fine for the first and second offense from $100 to $250, but reducing the maximum fine for each subsequent offense to $250 from $500.
Despite the innocuous intent, news outlets both local and national saw something nefarious in the cursing portion of the law, which has been on the books for years. Among the headlines:
- “Arlington Cracks Down on Salty Language” — Washingtonian
- “Arlington raises the penalty for potty mouths” — WTOP
- “Cursing in Arlington could cost you $250” — Washington Post
- “Cursing in Public Becomes Fineable Offense in Arlington County” — WNEW 99.1
- “There’s a racial history behind these types of laws” — The Atlantic CityLab
- “Having a potty mouth will cost you a pretty penny in Arlington, Va.” — New York Daily News
- “Arlington, Virginia, Seems to Think F-Bombs Are Actual Weapons” — Reason.com
- “Arlington, Virginia Has a New Law Against Swearing” — Break.com
How prevalent are the citations for public cursing? Of the 664 citations issued under Arlington’s public cursing and drunkenness ordinance in 2014, four — or 0.6 percent — were for “curse and abuse.”
Arlington County Police Department spokesman Dustin Sternbeck said that in the rare instance an officer actually does issue a curse and abuse citation, it’s usually as a result of calls from residents about people cussing in front of children.
“It’s not like police are out there looking for people using profane language,” Sternbeck said. “It’s calls from members of the public who are concerned about subjects acting disorderly.”
Sternbeck was able to list the circumstances of three of the four cursing citations issued in 2014.
- A public argument between two parties in front of Ballston Common Mall
- A group of men cursing in Tyrol Hill Park in front of children, who then cursed at officers after being asked to stop
- A driver who repeatedly cursed at a police officer after receiving several traffic violations
“Police are not actively seeking out people using profane language,” Sternbeck repeated. “[The ordinance] was just updated to be in line with the state code.”