Police in Chicago have been told not to enforce a 100-year-old ordinance that bans public swearing, which critics say violates the right to free speech.

A federal class-action lawsuit filed in March claims a city ordinance banning “indecent acts and words” is unconstitutional.

City spokeswoman Jennifer Hoyle said the majority of police citations under the ordinance in recent years had been for public urination. And since a specific ordinance against that behavior was passed last summer, the older policy has become unnecessary, Hoyle told the Chicago Tribune.

The Windy City isn’t the only municipality with a law on its books banning coarse language.

Numbered among the prohibited offenses in Edison, N.J., is “offensive or indecent language in the streets or highways or other public or quasi-public places.”

According to the town’s municipal codebook, “improper” noise is also prohibited.

Federal courts have held that speech that is not considered “obscene” may still qualify as “indecent.” But the U.S. Supreme ruled in 1978 that indecent speech is protected by the First Amendment.

The court did acknowledge in its ruling on FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, Inc., however, that “indecent” speech “can still be regulated where there is a sufficient government interest.”

Indecent speech was defined as language that “describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by community standards.”

The Supreme Court has also said that communities can ban “fighting words,” such as threats or speech used to incite violence or disturb the peace. Such violations are often labeled as “disorderly conduct.”

Jodi Mathews is BCE’s communications director.

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