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Manchester’s Bad Language Ban

Apr 2016

Language ,

A Manchester council has recently introduced a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO), banning the use of bad language in an upscale development.

While the PSPO has a much wider remit, it explicitly outlaws “using foul and abusive language.” However, since the document does not define what counts as foul or abusive language, interpretation is left to the discretion of the enforcer.

Salford Quay

The PSPO means anyone caught swearing in the Salford Quays development is liable for an on-the-spot fixed penalty notice of £60 if paid within 10 days or £90 if paid late.

Despite widespread criticism, Salford Council has yet to take a step backwards, saying:

“Salford City Council is not going to apologise for using national legislation to help Salford residents when their lives are being made a misery by anti-social behaviour.

“This order was introduced last summer after complaints from local residents about anti-social behaviour, including people throwing wheelie bins into the Quays and tampering with emergency life-saving equipment.”

While few will criticise the council’s noble intentions, many are worried about the message it sends out. Amongst its critics, human rights advocacy group Liberty has been particularly vocal, strongly criticising the PSPO in its current form.

In an article published on the groups’ website, Liberty asks Salford City Council for wholesale clarification on the PSPO, including the difference between foul and abusive language, the legal test used to determine foulness or abusiveness and the legality of swearing without witnesses.

The article concludes by warning the council of the “chilling effect on artistic performers and political activists in the Salford Quays area – which encompasses the renowned Lowry theatre.”

Comedian Mark Thomas — who performed in Salford last month — challenged the council, sending them a list of 425 swear words for approval. According to Thomas, the council responded, saying they “wholly support your ability to express yourself’ and that they would ‘not be taking steps to prevent it.”

That is until Thomas takes his performance out of the theatre and onto the streets.


Language most foul

Ignoring the vagueness of the PSPO, profanity is already a complicated and convoluted subject.

For example, the culture of the speaker can have a huge influence. While several profane words are used like punctuation in Glasgow, they remain socially inappropriate in other cities. And then, of course, there is are the varying functions of profanity.

Linguist Steven Pinker believes there are five disparate functions of profanity:

  • Abusive
  • Cathartic
  • Dysphemistic
  • Emphatic
  • Idiomatic

Consider the two following examples. First, you are assembling an Ikea shelving unit when you slip and hit your thumb with a hammer. In response, you let out a muttered expletive. Second, you are attending a sporting event when the referee makes a decision you disagree with. In response, you shout an expletive at the referee.

In both examples, you could use the exact same word but it seems natural to treat them in different ways. One is an example of cathartic function and the other an abusive function.

However, under the current PSPO both usages could be treated as the same and the speaker punished identically. This strikes me as wrong.

Do you think there is a difference between the two examples? If so, why? Let us know your opinions on Twitter or Facebook.

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