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Who decides what is profanity?
June 12, 2012 - Jim Smith
While the concept of writing a ticket for public profanity certainly sounds intriguing, it also might begin the proverbial slippery slope and create First Amendment concerns over definitions of "profanity" and free speech.
Middleborough, Mass., residents voted in a town meeting Monday night 183-50 out of its 20,000 residents to approve a ban on foul language in public and impose a $20 fine for such conduct.
The police chief had proposed decriminalizing public profanity, allowing police to write a citation for an offense. The town had a bylaw against public profanity since 1968, but it was rarely enforced because it was too expensive to pursue such a criminal charge through court.
According to an AP report, some downtown merchants supported the ban because of offenders sitting on town benches, yelling obscenities at passersby and each other, making customers uncomfortable.
Matthew Segal, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that government cannot prohibit public speech just because it contains profanity. While praising Middleborough for reconsidering its bylaw against public profanity, he said issuing fines isn't much better.
"Police officers who never enforced the bylaw might be tempted to issue these fines, and people might end up getting fined for constitutionally protected speech," Segal said.
Maybe even more to a practical point is merchant Robert Saquet who likened the new ordinance to trying to enforce the public airways ban on the famous "seven dirty words" of the late comedian, George Carlin. " In view of the language words commonly used in movies and on cable TV, it's getting harder and harder to define what is obscene. Some of the profanity has become so commonplace that it has lost most, if not all, of its shock value. While it remains offensive, should it be illegal or should one merely consider the source?
Is hearing offensive language the same as being physically abused? And, does banning certain language in public lead to legislation deciding what can and cannot be said, what can and cannot be thought?
Yes, it bothers me to hear people swearing loudly, but should it be illegal to do so or should it more appropriately be considered disorderly conduct, for which there already are laws to regulate?
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