Should Cursing around a Child Constitute Child Neglect?

In New Jersey, there exists a 70-year-old law that states “a parent, guardian, or person in charge of a minor could be guilty of a fourth-degree crime of child neglect if he or she habitually uses profane, indecent, or obscene language in front of the minor because it could be detrimental to the minor’s morals.” N.J.S.A 9:6-3.

profanity child neglectThe New Jersey Supreme Court is rethinking whether the law should be upheld or struck down, in light of the recent case of a man who was found guilty of violating the law, which is part of the state’s child abuse statutes. In 2009, the man faced an accusation of committing the crime of sexual assault on his foster son, who was 13 years old at the time. He was charged with a number of crimes, but accepted a plea bargain to a less serious offense.

Prior to accepting the plea bargain, he had served three years, and he completed his prison term. He made previous attempts to have his plea withdrawn, and now, he and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are filing a lawsuit to withdraw his plea. Their lawsuit is based on the First Amendment.

The issue before the judges is: “Did defendant’s admission during his plea allocution to cursing and using off-color language in such a way as to debauch a child’s morals provide an adequate factual basis to establish child neglect under N.J.S.A. 9:6-3?”

His attorneys maintain that the statute was unconstitutional in that the use of profane words does not amount to a crime. In response, one of the jurists said that acceptance of such an argument would be the equivalent of the court stating that it’s allowable for parents or guardians to curse frequently in front of minors.

The prosecutor mentioned to the court that the defendant’s guilty plea should be considered within the context of the charges from which he plea bargained. Those charges could have caused him to be in prison for 20 years.

Another issue noted by one of the jurists is that the defendant didn’t specify the type of offensive language he used when he pleaded guilty to the less serious offense. According to the statute, you have violated the law if you use “profane, indecent, or obscene language” in front of children. If the obscenities appeal to “prurient interests,” then they are not protected by the First Amendment.

Profane language, however, is protected by the First Amendment. But it cannot include “fighting words” that incite someone to violence, or that instigates a riot. Profane language can include words that are believed to be offensive, including those that have vulgar, racist, or sexual overtones. Indecent language is also protected by the First Amendment because not everyone finds such language to be offensive.

I am inclined to agree with the court when it says that making the statute unconstitutional would be tantamount to stating that it is permissible for parents to curse often in front of children. Although profanity may seem harmless, overexposure to vulgarities could have an adverse effect on a child’s morals, ethics, and behavior.

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