“Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself.”
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Voltaire
News Update: Massachusetts Town Swears Off Swearing
Okay, you tell me, is the new anti-swearing law passed in Middleborough, Massachusetts this week a good thing or is it the beginning of the end of our first amendment rights to free speech? I’m sure the good people of Middleborough have their heart in the right place and are simply trying to make their town a better place, but is fining people for public profanity really the answer? Sometimes a well intended policy that begins innocently enough, winds up opening the door for unintended change, the proverbial ‘Pandora’s Box’ Once opened all hell breaks lose.
It seems the good folks of Middleborough thought there was too much profanity on their city streets and decided to do something about it. They held a town hall meeting and voted in a new ordinance on public profanity that imposes a $20 fine for each infraction. It sounds like an expanded version of a family ‘swear jar’ where each time a family member curses money must be placed in the jar, only now it’s the law! Can you imagine walking down the street and entering a “No swearing Zone!”
So now the problems begin. First off, who gets to define profanity in Middleborough municipal code? Who gets to decide. Will it be the mayor and his city council or will the chief of police get the job? Perhaps they’ll decide to form a special committee to handle it. They could be called ‘P.O.P.’ People Opposed to Profanity or how about “the Profanity Patrol or “Profanity Police?” Yeah, they could meet each Tuesday night and work on ‘The List’ of offensive words. For sure at least five of George Carlin’s famous “seven words you can’t say on TV” will make the list, “sh*t, c**t, f**k, mother-f***er and c***sucker. Yeah they’ll be on the list but what other words will make the cut? Will “damn” or “hell” be on the list, what about “ass”or ‘dickhead’? Oh I could go on and on. It’s not as cut and dry as it first appears and definitely won’t be an easy task, because what one person deems profanity another may not.
Profanity is a broad term. It’s not only swearing or cussing, but can also include gestures like “the finger” and other behaviors that are found to be insulting, rude, obscene or vulgar. Before long “the list” is a mile long! Can you see how this simple move to ban swearing on a small towns streets can spiral out of control and easily become a censorship issue? What would the Founding Fathers say? Would Jefferson be offended?
Now you may not think anything of this, but I have to tell you, it’s something to keep an eye on. Although the creators of this ordinance insist that the only reason they created the ordinance was because this so-called street profanity was affecting local businesses and their intent is not to censor private conversations or infringe on anyone’s rights, but intended only for loud verbal assaults or unacceptable behavior on sidewalks in front of businesses. Again who will decide what is unacceptable or too loud? Already there are people across the nation monitoring how this new ordinance will play out. If it goes well for Middleborough perhaps other cities will follow suit and we’ll all be biting our tongues more often when on the streets.
I’m not sure about this one folks, it tip-toes the line on censorship and our right to free speech. I agree swearing has gotten out of hand and certain words have found there way to acceptability in normal conversation. I work at a high school, the place where every third word is the f-word, so believe me I know. Still this ordinance has me a bit worried, perhaps unnecessarily, but I cant help thinking about George Orwell’s 1984 and ‘Big Brother’ watching. I’m also reminded of Stephen King’s short story “The Library Police” in which those who have overdue books and fines are sought out by the Library Police. Yeah a little far fetched I know, but hey, before this week the “Profanity Patrol was pretty far-fetched too!