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Listening Post: Is it legal to display a public sign containing profanity?

A PA Post reader asked, so we answered

  • Ed Mahon
Daniel Klein hung up flags, seen on May 3, 2019, in support of Republican Donald Trump. Klein has two such flags outside his Wyoming County home.

 Ed Mahon / PA Post

Daniel Klein hung up flags, seen on May 3, 2019, in support of Republican Donald Trump. Klein has two such flags outside his Wyoming County home.

On Friday, I wrote about the “Second Amendment Sanctuary” movement in Pennsylvania. In Bradford County, commissioners voted 2-1 in favor of a resolution declaring the county to be such a sanctuary. The elected leaders of the northeastern Pa. county say they are also considering an ordinance that would prevent the county from enforcing or funding a broad range of potential gun restrictions. Such an ordinance would have much bigger legal implications than the symbolic resolution. –Ed Mahon, PA Post reporter
Daniel Klein hung up this flag, seen on May 3, 2019, in support of Republican Donald Trump. Klein has two such flags outside his Wyoming County home.

Ed Mahon / PA Post

A pro-Trump sign posted last May by a Wyoming County resident. Versions of the same sign are popping up elsewhere in the state. (Ed Mahon / PA Post).

One cool thing we do at PA Post is give readers a say in what stories we cover through our Listening Post feature.  The tool has led to stories about voting machineslibrary fundingproperty taxes and more.

Sometimes one of the journalists here responds directly to the person who asks the question. That was the case in December when reader Penny Weinberg-Uebelhoer wrote to us.

A sign in the city of Sunbury in Northumberland County prompted Penny’s question. The sign says “Trump 2020 No More Bullshit” (The Daily Item has covered the conflict over the sign, and separately, I interviewed a Trump supporter in Wyoming County who was displaying two flags with the same message back in May.)

Lisa Wardle, digital manager for WIF and PA Post, responded. Here’s what she wrote:

Good morning, Penny.

We received your question to our Listening Post:

Is it legal to display a sign containing profanity? The sign in question is located in a window on the main street in Sunbury, PA and is political in nature.

Short answer: Yes.

Longer answer: While we continue to discuss the breadth of the First Amendment at both local and national levels, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled profanity generally falls under the umbrella of free speech, so long as it is not threatening or obscene.

There has been much legal debate over what qualifies as “obscene” material. Here in Pennsylvania, the law specifies explicit sexual materials and defines the term as such:

“Obscene.”  Any material or performance, if:

(1)  the average person applying contemporary community standards would find that the subject matter taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest;

(2)  the subject matter depicts or describes in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct of a type described in this section; and

(3)  the subject matter, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, educational or scientific value.

We encountered a political sign with a profane word earlier this year in Wyoming County. The homeowner there wanted to show his support for President Trump and knew that his signage was attracting attention, but he didn’t seem to care.

Lisa also included links to four sources: a legal website from Cornell Law School; an NPR story; the Pennsylvania General Assembly site; and my Wyoming County story. If you have a question you want answered or a perspective you want us to consider drop us a line at the Listening Post.

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hoto courtesy Refuse Fascism Philly)

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