The recent decision in Middleborough, MA to ban the use of profanity in public puts me in an awkward position.
It forces me to defend the right of obnoxious young punks to loiter on street corners shouting offensive expletives.
That is not something to which I want to listen. And, I understand that it may be intimidating for innocent young maidens to hear these outbursts.
I don’t have any children or blue-haired grannies, but I can see how it could be uncomfortable to be strolling down the boulevard with one’s family and be exposed to the kind of vulgar language that the city is trying to suppress.
Despite all that, however, I wouldn’t want to find myself walking down the street in any city in which the police are responsible for deciding which words are (or aren’t) acceptable for citizens to use.
Regardless of how well-intentioned such a rule might be, contemplating such a ban is a bit like perching atop a slippery slope in Teflon mukluks. There is no telling where we might end up.
Perhaps it starts with profanity, assuming residents can agree on what should be considered profanity.
The ban could then be expanded to include other things that some segment of the population might find offensive.
For example, I find it offensive to hear hooligans (including those who are featured on television news programs) spewing bad grammar in public.
Something tells me, however, that we aren’t likely to see widespread support for policing grammar.
A lot of political candidates, especially in an election year, spend their time wailing like banshees, screeching partisan rhetoric, misinformation, and flat-out lies.
If we could come up with a way to fine politicians $20 every time they utter a public statement that is divisive or untrue, this might be a policy one could support. We could probably lower taxes significantly as a result of all the extra revenue it would generate.
Getting back to the free speech issue, however, it is possible that someone might suggest we should prohibit any speech that is critical of the government. They might say this is necessary in the interest of national security.
Supporters might argue that this is reasonable, even though it could result in other consequences (including putting a number of newspaper columnists out of work).
Next, someone might propose banning any speech which is blasphemous in the eyes of some religion (presumably the religion practiced by whomever is proposing the rule).
There may be elements in these examples and others like them that some people might support.
The difficulty with this kind of thinking is that it is never as innocent as it may seem on the surface. The world is full of real examples of what happens when governments are allowed to dictate what people can say (or write).
The good folks in Massachusetts were quick to point out that their goal is not to censor private conversations just what people can say in public. That scares the bejeezus out of me.
Limiting the ability to speak freely in public is something that should be of deep concern to all citizens. We can’t say we support the First Amendment, and then start imposing limits on what speech it protects based on personal preferences.
One of the challenges with limiting free speech is determining who is responsible for deciding what is or isn’t acceptable.
In the Massachusetts case, it is left to the discretion of the local police department.
This means that in addition to keeping the peace and maintaining law and order, police officers have to listen for profanity, and if they hear someone lobbing around the old effenheimer or other words that may be considered offensive, they will have to decide whether or not to collect a $20 fine.
That puts a lot of pressure on the officers.
Perhaps the local police department will have to resurrect the late George Carlin’s bit about the seven words you can’t say on TV, and use this during police briefings to remind officers about some of the words that are prohibited in their town.
The problem with living in a country where we believe in freedom of speech is that it sometimes forces us to defend speech with which we may disagree, or which we find offensive in some way. This is a problem with which I am prepared to live. It is a problem that a lot of good people have died to protect, and others died trying to win for themselves, or even for future generations.
I have called this a problem, but I don’t really see it as a problem. I see it as a responsibility.
Freedom of speech is so critical to our way of life, it must be defended at all cost, even when we don’t agree with the content of the speech or the writing.
Hoodlums hurling expletives on public streets may be an assault on our delicate ears, but attempting to silence these malefactors is an assault on our collective freedom.
We may encounter many “dirty” words as we go through life.
One of those is censorship, which is a very dirty word, indeed, and I hope it doesn’t start catching on. We are better off with the swearing.