The word that was formerly never spoken, at least in public, is now becoming so common in usage that it has lost its shock value. Substitute words are now used daily, even by grandmothers, because the word and its substitutes has no longer has its impact of incivility. The word of which I write is the abbreviated version of firetruck, the four letter one. Its substitutes include freaking, friggin’ and ‘effin’, among others.

As a child, I don’t recall “fire… truck” being used around me. It wasn’t used by my parents. The only one who cussed was­­­­­ my mother on rare occasion and it was pretty tame. It wasn’t until law school that I began to hear cursing on a regular basis. Once I entered the court system, cursing became normal, almost necessary at times depending on who you were talking with. And it wasn’t just me, in days of yore society as a whole abhorred the use of cursing. People who did curse were marginalized and ignored. The ­­­­highest rated comedians and singers didn’t curse and managed to sell out their shows. It’s rare to find a comedian who doesn’t curse now. Jerry Seinfeld is an exception, because despite sexual innuendo, he doesn’t curse.

Georgia, being a Bible-belt state, codified eons ago the use of “fighting words” and obscene language in the presence of persons under 14 years of age. OCGA 16-11-39 “(1)  Without provocation, uses to or of another, in his presence, opprobrious or abusive words which by their very utterance tend to incite to an immediate breach of the peace, that is to say, words which as a matter of common knowledge and under ordinary circumstances will, when used to or of another person in his presence, naturally tend to provoke violent resentment, that is, words commonly called “fighting words…” Now that is a mouthful!

The other part is the use of obscene” words under OCGA 16-11-39(a)(4) “(2) Without provocation, uses obscene and vulgar or profane language in the presence of or by telephone to a person under the age of 14 years which threatens an immediate breach of the peace;”

Reviewing the dozens of appeals in the past thirty years, there hasn’t been much activity where only obscene language was the basis of a conviction. Usually there is other conduct such as a threatening movement or gesture, which coupled with the language, results in a conviction.

So back to the real world: you are walking through Wal-Mart with an obscene t-shirt, displaying your profane disgust of the current or former President, are you committing a crime? Maybe. If your shirt causes a disruption because parents of young children take offense and a heated argument ensues, it seems to me that your actions invoked both the fighting words and obscene language requirement of OCGA 16-11-39. Whether the local gendarmes concur is another matter. Officers have discretion to make an arrest or not, just as the prosecutor may or may not proceed with the case.

Working on Robins AFB (or any federal property) means that you might have different rules for bumper stickers than civilian types. Not sure? You could ask, but… if you have to ask just don’t do it. Same goes with your private employer, I’d say to follow the rules if you want your job. But that’s just me.

My view is that using profanity is not positive, is not uplifting and actually is a cancer on our society. Call me old fashioned, but I don’t see any society in history that benefitted from a loosening of morals. You can have growth of personal freedom and liberty while maintaining a baseline of moral values. Yet we have buried our heads in the sand and let the uber-minority lessen our values because we chose not to act. So that is on us. Which leads to my conclusion.

My personal view is that parents won’t go so far as to get into a dispute with the distasteful t-shirt bearer or bumper sticker assaulter but will instead use it as a teaching moment. What is funny is when the child later hears Granny say “freaking” and says “Granny, Daddy told us we aren’t allowed to use words like that!”

Kelly Burke, master attorney, former district attorney and magistrate judge, is engaged in private practice. He writes about the law, rock’n’roll and politics or anything that strikes him. These articles are not designed to give legal advice, but are designed to inform the public about how the law affects their daily lives. Contact Kelly at to comment on this article or suggest articles that you’d like to see and visit his website to view prior columns.

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