FOR THE RECORD: Statement from City of Myrtle Beach

The City of Myrtle Beach would like to set the record straight after a number of published articles have led some to believe that simply cursing could result in a fine in Myrtle Beach.

The city and the Myrtle Beach Police Department support and defend the First Amendment and everyone’s constitutional right to free speech.  Like most citizens, we would prefer that people speak and act kindly.  Using profanity may be offensive, but by itself, it is not an offense.

The city’s “Disorderly Conduct; Breach of the Peace” ordinance clearly states the use of profanity only becomes unlawful when a person’s conduct incites public disorder or a breach of the peace. This means a person cannot be arrested merely for using vulgar language. However, they can be cited for their disorderly behavior – which may or may not include the use of profanity.

The U.S. Supreme Court and Court of Appeals have made it clear:  the First Amendment does not protect lewd, obscene, profane, libelous, insulting, or fighting words – which by their very utterance – inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.  See the court cases below for more information.

In order to clearly explain the ordinance and law to our community, we have included the State of South Carolina’s code section dealing with obscene or profane language and the city’s ordinance, below.

We regret that this article and the follow-up coverage from it have caused this misunderstanding and appreciate the opportunity to set the record straight.  The Myrtle Beach Police Department remains committed to community partnerships and constitutional public safety.

The State of South Carolina Code, § 16-17-530, states:

Any person who shall (a) be found on any highway or at any public place or public gathering in a grossly intoxicated condition or otherwise conducting himself in a disorderly or boisterous manner, (b) use obscene or profane language on any highway or at any public place or gathering or in hearing distance of any schoolhouse or church or (c) while under the influence or feigning to be under the influence of intoxicating liquor, without just cause or excuse, discharge any gun, pistol or other firearm while upon or within fifty yards of any public road or highway, except upon his own premises, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction shall be fined not more than one hundred dollars or be imprisoned for not more than thirty days.

The City of Myrtle Beach Code, Sec 14-61 – Disorderly Conduct; Breach of the Peace, reads, in part:

(b) It shall be unlawful for any person within the city limits to intentionally engage in any act or conduct inciting public disorder or a breach of the peace in light of the surrounding circumstances of time, place or nearness of other persons, including but not limited to acts or conduct characterized: (1) By making, uttering or directing toward another person any lewd, obscene or profane or libelous expletive or epithets or “fighting” words, which as a matter of common knowledge, when addressed to the ordinary citizen are inherently likely to provoke violent reactions, including but not limited to calls, threats and invitations to immediately engage in physical violence, fisticuffs, duel or personal combat; (2) By being grossly intoxicated or appearing so appreciably impaired as to constitute a danger to one’s self or to others; (3) By being grossly intoxicated or appearing so appreciably impaired while noisy resisting lawful command; (4) By being grossly intoxicated or appearing so appreciably impaired while engaging in lewd, obscene, profane, boisterous, riotous, tumultuous or violent acts or conduct, as those terms are commonly defined and understood; (5) By knowingly and willfully engaging in any overt conduct that interferes with another’s pursuit of a lawful occupation or activity, or that blocks or obstructs the passage of vehicles or pedestrians on a public way; (6) By physically accosting or attempt to force one’s company upon any person against their will; or (7) By congregating with two or more persons in a public place so to block or obstruct passage, while refusing to comply with a lawful order of the police to disperse.

See also:

In Chaplinsky v. State of New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942), the Supreme Court of the United States said:  “The ‘freedom of speech’ protected by the constitution is not absolute at all times and under all circumstances and there are well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which does not raise any constitutional problem, including the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or fighting words which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.

City of Landrum v. Sarratt, 352 S.C. 139, 572 S.E.2d 476 (2002), the Court of Appeals reviewed a conviction under the State statute.  The Court of Appeals recognized that the First Amendment erects a barrier to speech restrictions and analyzed what kind of speech constitutes unprotected “fighting words.” The court concluded that, in the context and manner (manner, proximity, public venue) in which they were uttered, Sarratt’s curse words constituted fighting words.  It therefore upheld his conviction.