Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Middleborough Says "Fork You!" to Protected Speech

Warning: Contains profanity, but for a good reason. If you live in Middleborough, Massachusetts, reading this aloud may cost you.

I was both mildly amused and annoyed last week when I heard that the town of Middleborough, Massachusetts, was considering an ordinance that would allow the police to fine people for swearing in public. Here, I thought, was another stupid idea espoused by small-minded people trying to get the government to force others to live and act the way they, the small-minded, want people to live and act. The ordinance couldn’t possibly pass because it is so obviously not only unconstitutional, but downright wrong.

And then, this morning, I learned that the ordinance passed. I was astounded. And horrified.

And it wasn’t just passed by a small council of old, curmudgeonly, right-wing, fundamentalist Christians as one might expect; it was passed in a town meeting by a vote of 183 to 50.

I couldn’t believe it. Is this what democracy has become? Is this what America is now?

This new ordinance replaces a previous stupid law. Middleborough “has had a bylaw against public profanity since 1968. But because that bylaw essentially makes cursing a crime, it has rarely if ever been enforced, officials said, because it simply would not merit the time and expense to pursue a case through the courts.”

swearing in cartoon Suomi: Kiroileva sarjakuva...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
So what, you might wonder, are the people in Middleborough not allowed to say in public? Nobody really knows for sure because, according to the story linked above, “The ordinance gives police discretion over whether to ticket someone if they believe the cursing ban has been violated.” The ordinance does not state what qualifies as profanity or list what words are verboten.

And for a simple reason: If they were to include such a list, reading the ordinance aloud in a public place would constitute a violation of the ordinance being read.

Legal paradoxes are never good.

Giving the police discretion to fine foul language as they see fit, without any guidelines whatsoever, makes this ordinance totally arbitrary, and therefore totally unfair. Enforcing this ordinance will only lead to greater (and more expensive) problems

What Constitutes Swearing?

Profanity in American Sign Language
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Sure, we have George Carlin’s seven words, but does swearing stop there? If we allow a damn, is goddamn fair game? Is telling a friend not to be an asshole as profane and fine-worthy as telling him not to be an ass?

I had a friend in high school who grew up in a conservative Christian household in which the word butt was off-limits. I had another friend (I had some really repressed friends) who wasn’t allowed to say gosh at home for the wonderfully logical reason that gosh is a euphemism for God; therefore, saying gosh still qualified as “Taking the Lord’s name in vain.”

If these friends’ mothers were Middleborough cops, would they be in the right to enforce their families’ language limitations on the public? Is that was this ordinance is opening Middleborough citizens up to?

A lot of what counts as profanity depends on context and intention, too, but can (or should) the Middleborough language police consider this when handing out these fines? If you fine an angry homophobe for calling someone a faggot, should two gay men using the same word to each other also be fined? Certainly some loud-mouthed bigot spouting off about the niggers is fine-worthy, but what about two young black men using the same word? Should the police fine them for profanity?

And to make the situation even more awkward and volatile, consider the skin color of the police officer who does try to fine these two young black men for using such “profanity.”

What Can Be Done?

There’s not a lot most of us can do from our respective locations except to draw attention to this problem and support the voice of reason and freedom when we hear it.

What I would like to see is some big guns show up in Middleborough to test the limits of the ordinance, try the patience of Middleborough authorities, and shine a light on this issue for the rest of the country. Force the issue and show the people who voted for this ordinance what it really means and how ridiculous it really is.

By “big guns,” I mean Hollywood activists. Imagine George Clooney at a food cart outside the local police station, ordering, in his clearest most charming voice, “A brat with some of that sauerkraut shit, some goddamn chips, and a fucking Coke.” Or how about a Kardashian in a T-shirt that lists George Carlin’s seven words (does the ordinance account for displays of profanity or just the spoken word?) with nothing underneath. Should she comply with the language police by taking the shirt off? (Imagine the publicity there!)

Really, though, what I would like to see is the people of Middleborough reverse this lame regulation. It passed by a vote of 183 to 50, but more than 233 people live there. The people who show up for town meetings are usually the ones with something to gripe about. People who are generally happy with things and are accepting of other people’s ways of living often don’t bother to show up.

I would love to see renewed discussion and a revote, but this time with all the reasonable and thoughtful residents of Middleborough voting as well. This wouldn’t stand in a community of people able to see beyond their own discomfort.

People of Middleborough, this new ordinance doesn’t solve your swearing problem; it only creates greater problems if your new language police decide to start ticketing. If you’re going to stand by this new regulation, the question now becomes how much of your tax money you’re willing to waste to defend it in the civil suits that will inevitably come.

What I Don’t Know

I haven’t read the actual ordinance* — this is my response to the news coverage I’ve seen on the Internet — and I’m certainly no lawyer. (I’ve never even played one on TV.) So there are a few questions I don’t know the answer to that might change the way I think about this, or at the very least might quench my curiosity:
  • Are police expected to fine by word, by sentence, or by some other criterion? Would George Clooney have been fined $20 or $60 for placing his order?
  • Are there legal age restrictions on who can be fined? Could police fine a 10-year-old potty-mouth? Would they fine Potty Mouth’s parents?
  • What happens if a person refuses to pay the fine? The article compares ticketing for profanity to ticketing for a traffic violation. But if a person refuses to pay the fine for a traffic violation, the police can revoke his driver’s license or even impound his car. Middleborough isn’t ready to revoke a person’s right to speak or, worse, to impound someone’s tongue, but what are they ready to do?
  • Is Middleborough the voluntary Tourette’s capital of the world? I have a hard time believing that this little Massachusetts town has a “profanity problem” that is any worse than any other city of similar size in the nation. In the world, even. Are the young people of Middleborough so foul-mouthed and discourteous that they are setting a new standard for vulgarity?
  • Has anyone ever actually studied the effects of hearing, speaking, or seeing so-called foul language on the psychological or financial outcomes of individuals? Is there actually some proven detrimental effect? (And, seriously, have you ever tried to explain to a child — or to yourself even — what makes one word naughty and another word not?)

Why This Is So Wrong (And Why It Pisses Me Off So Much)

The First Amendment implications are obvious, but that isn’t what really squishes my spleen. No, what really gets me is that this is another symptom of a taint that I’ve watched spread through this country. It has to do with Americans’ views of what government is and what it’s supposed to do.

The quotations that appear in that article reveal it clearly enough:

Mimi Duphily is quoted as saying, “They’ll sit on the bench and yell back and forth to each other with the foulest language. It’s just so inappropriate.” Robert Saquet, in the last line of the article (which is inexplicably on its own on the second page), is quoted as saying, “I don’t care what you do in private. It’s in public what bothers me.”

Let me state what I believe about our government as plainly as I can:

The US government does not exist to protect your comfort. Just because you are uncomfortable or bothered does not mean that something illegal or immoral is going on that you need to be protected from.
The US government does not codify or enforce what is or is not appropriate for a given situation. You should never be fined for wearing a T-shirt to the Oscars.
It does, however, codify the rules that protect your safety, security, and individual rights. And there is no such thing as your right to comfort.
The US government does not exist to protect your right to believe what you want and to live how you want to live; it exists to protect everyone’s right to believe what they want and to live how they want to live.

Have we all forgotten our history? Have they stopped teaching US Government in high schools? Democracy, at least American Democracy, isn’t just “majority rules.” The US government was designed so that the majority could not simply trample on the rights of the minority. It was designed so that everyone’s opinions get to be heard and considered.

It wasn’t designed so that, if something makes you uncomfortable, you can get rid of that discomfort just by finding enough people who are also uncomfortable with the same thing. If that were the case, blacks wouldn’t be able to marry whites in some states. Prophylactics would still be illegal for the unmarried in others. Homosexuality would still be a crime.

What is supposed to be great about American Democracy is that we live with that discomfort. We recognize that people do things we don’t like (or don’t do things we think they should do), and we recognize their right to do or not do that thing, and we live with it.

But more and more, I see small but growing groups of people declaring how they think people should act, speak, and live, and then turning to the government to try to force everyone else to act, speak, and live the same way. It’s at the heart of debates about school prayer. About gay marriage. About teaching creationism in school. About reproductive rights. About making English the official language of the United States.

And it scares me.

Am I being too idealistic? Please tell me I’m not being too idealistic.

* If I find a copy of the ordinance online, I’ll post a link to it here. Or, if you know where to find it, you can beat me to it and post it now!
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