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Ethical considerations for using profanity


Even though profanity is protected speech, its use still creates controversy in deciding whether to use it. This exercise will examine the relevant legal issues in using profanity and also help students create ethical solutions to guide their decision-making choices. 


  • Students will examine the legal questions that surround the use of profane expression in their student media content. 
  • Students will compare the decision to use profane expression in terms of legal and ethical guidelines. 
  • Students will develop guidelines to help student journalists decide when – or if—they should use profane expression in their content. 


Common Core State Standards  



Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone. 




Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression. 




Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. 




Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism. 



50 minutes 


Blackboard or whiteboard 

Teacher laptop and digital projector 

Internet access 

Article: Third circuit appeals court backs students in ‘Boobies’ bracelet case 

Student computers if available 

Article: Ethical guidelines template 

Article: JEA model of ethical guidelines on profanity 

Article: Reading from the Law of the Student Press 


Lesson step-by-step 

 1. Warm up—5 minutes

Ask students: In your minds what is profanity? Should students ever use profanity in student media? Under what conditions? Why or why not?  

2. Whole class discussion—20 minutes

The teacher should lead discussion on profanity, what it is and is not. Use the notes provided below to help guide the discussion. Students should consider whether profanity could be reported in scholastic media and whether such decisions were of a legal nature, an ethical nature or a combination. 


Some additional points for discussion: 

  • How do different types of people react when they see or hear profanity?
  • How do people commonly define profanity?
  • How can student media help audiences understand what is profanity and what is not?

 Information for the teacher to share about profanity 

AGAINST: Cases that ruled against profanity use (information used with permission from Student Press Law Center)

 A. Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser, the Supreme Court allowed a school to punish a student for using sexually suggestive language during a school-sponsored assembly students were required to attend. The high court in that case held that student speech can be punished if it is “lewd,” “vulgar” or “plainly offensive.” 

B. In the en banc opinion issued by the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, a 9-5 majority found that the “I <3 boobies! (KEEP A BREAST)” breast cancer awareness bracelets worn by two Pennsylvania middle school students were not “lewd” and that the Easton Area School District’s ban on the bracelets violated the students’ First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The opinion, upholding a 2011 district court’s preliminary injunction to halt the ban, offered a broad defense of student political and social speech, including the bracelets, in a category of “speech of genuine social value.” Schools must be careful when balancing “a student’s right to free speech and a school’s need to control its educational environment,” the court said. Read more at the Student Press Law Center. 

C. Justices Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy issued a concurring opinion in Morse, the so-called “Bong hits 4 Jesus” case, in which the Court found no First Amendment violation in punishing a student for a pro-drug banner at a school event. Alito and Kennedy wrote that they could support restrictions on student speech about drug use only when the speech could not “plausibly be interpreted as commenting on any political or social issue.” In the opinion the majority opinion relied on Alito and Kennedy’s as the “controlling” opinion in the case, while the five-judge minority said Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion in the case was the prevailing legal standard. Roberts’ opinion offered no exceptions for speech about political or social issues. 


As a result of the majority’s interpretation of the Morse and Fraser cases, public schools may ban speech that is “plainly” lewd and cannot be interpreted as having a political or social message. But if there is even an ambiguity that the message might address political or social issues, then the speech must be allowed. (Justices Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy issued a concurring opinion in Morse, the so-called “Bong hits 4 Jesus” case, in which the Court found no First Amendment violation in punishing a student for a pro-drug banner at a school event. Alito and Kennedy wrote that they could support restrictions on student speech about drug use only when the speech could not “plausibly be interpreted as commenting on any political or social issue.” 

FOR: Ideas or arguments in favor of using profanity

  • Profanity, nudity and offensive material are not in themselves obscene if they do not arouse sexual feeling or depict ‘hard core sexual situations or if they occur in a serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value. 
  • One test for publishing profanity would be to ask local commercial media what they would do in the same situation. 
  • For the most part, terms like vulgar, profane, indecent, lewd or plainly offensive are adjectives and not legal standards. (Law of the Student Press). 
  • Does understanding of the context and content require use of the profane words? 
  • Does accuracy of content require use of profanity? 
  • Courts (Jacobs v Board of School Commissioners ruled that the occasional presence of a “few earthy words … did not threaten to disrupt school activities or impair the accomplishment of educational objectives.”  
  • Vulgar or indecent language alone does not legally justify censoring a student publication under the Tinker standard.  
  • Indecent language or words in broadcasting is different and coverable by the 1978 “7 dirty words” ruling (FCC v Pacifica). 
  • Developing guidelines for handling profanity or vulgarity: “Students should carefully weigh the benefits and costs of publishing language that any segment of their readers might find offensive.”  

Questions to ask before printing:  

  • Is the language needed to present the message or give a quote authenticity
  • Or will it divert attention from the article’s primary message?
  • Is the article simply using words to shock without journalistic justification?
  • Is there less offensive language that would communicate the same  idea?
  • Is a fight over profanity a free speech battle students want to wage? (20 minutes)

The teacher will urge students to consider under what conditions they would use profanity with their content, and if so, what conditions would they establish for its use.  

3. Building ethical guidelines—30 minutes

The large group discussion should shift from discussion to creating an ethical guideline template for profanity. Instruct students to brainstorm rules or procedures for deciding when to print profanity.  

The teacher or a student will record student answers and comments on a whiteboard. Students will use these comments to develop a working ethical guideline on profanity for consideration. Students will use the Ethical Guidelines template as they create their draft.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        


The teacher will select a team of students to formalize the answers and comments into a final version of the ethical guidelines template to share with the class the next day for their approval. The class could compare their final guidelines with JEA SPRC model guidelines profanity guide for discussion.  


The teacher might guide the students to discuss profanity guidelines in small groups instead of large groups. The goal would be to reach the same final decisions, but by the end of the class and then the next day choose a final version from all the small group decisions. 


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