Friday, June 29, 2012


by Sheila Connolly

As you may have heard, a couple of weeks ago my current hometown (settled in 1660; current population 22,207 according to their official website) voted in the annual Town Meeting (a peculiarly New England tradition) to "decriminalize a 1968 bylaw that made public profanity illegal."   Following the vote, anyone using profanity in a public place would be subject to a $20 fine.  The vote was 183 for to 50 against.

The town has a voting population of something like 14,000.  233 voted at the Town Meeting.  This is typical, but that's another story. The ordinance passed by better than three to one.

According to Tuesday's article in The Boston Globe, enforcement of this ordinance is on hold until the state Attorney General determines whether it is constitutional.  That didn't stop some 100 people (from as far away as New Mexico) from gathering in a torrential downpour on Monday to hold a "swear-in"—to defend the right to spew verbal sewage in public.

This process has been fascinating to follow.  The day following the original vote I received emails from a number of friends scattered across the country saying they had heard about it.  I even found one article in an online Irish newsletter.  Clearly this is a hot-button issue.

The arguments against the ordinance seem to fall into two related categories.  One is the right to free speech, guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, no matter who it might offend.  The other is hostility toward what one protester called "pathological bullying" by government.

Off the record, the ordinance was directed toward the local teenagers who gather on street corners in our small town (one stoplight) after dark, and enthusiastically exercise their right to free speech, which aggravates those good citizens who believe in their right to walk through town without being assailed by profanity.  On the other hand, the protesters (funny—quite a few came from out of town, and even out of state) come off sounding a bit childish.  "Nyah, nyah, you can't make me shut up!"

How interesting to find a constitutional conflict taking place in my back yard.  I confess that I did not attend the meeting, although I have in the past.  I'm not sure how (or even if) I would have voted, because I can see both sides of the issue—as well as the potential for abuse by supporters of both sides.  For the moment the kids in town will no doubt revel in their constitutional rights to foul speech.  But the same ordinance would give anyone the right to complain if a neighbor's roofer slams his thumb with a hammer and utters a few colorful words.  Where do you draw the line?

I write cozy mysteries, which by definition are largely free from profanity.  That's what the readers want, and that is our pledge to them when we market the book in that niche.  Yet I am often faced with writing scenarios when an armed killer is threatening my characters with mutilation or death—is it believable to have them say, "gosh darn it, don't kill me"?  Our society designates certain words as extreme and harsh, but there's a reason for that.  We need to signal extreme emotions—fear, hate, anger—and better that we use words that go straight to physical violence. 

Profanity, used correctly, conveys a message and sends up a warning flag.  Or at least, it should. When it's overused, it loses its effectiveness.

Which does not mean I condone a bunch of teenage guys trying to outdo each other with the frequency of use of the F-word, where small children and grandmothers can't avoid hearing them.

How would you vote?  Yea or nay on public profanity?



First of all, I don't understand the vote. If they voted "for" decriminalizing a law that made public profanity illegal, then they voted to make it legal, right?

If I have that wrong, and they're making it illegal, then it IS unconstitutional, with plenty of precedents in my lifetime alone. Not to mention the fact that enforcing it would be a huge waste of taxpayer money. Wouldn't you rather have your police spend time on, say, drug dealers?

Sheila Connolly said...

I'll admit to being confused. The statute has been on the town's books since the 1920s, with some modification in the 1960s--but apparently it was never implemented (i.e., nobody was arrested). The vote was, I believe, to change the status of the law, to make it a non-criminal offense and to enable the police to impose fines. I'm not sure who proposed it (all proposals have to be included in the Warrant for the Town Meeting, which must be available to the public in advance of the meeting). I'm not a lawyer!

I read the crime report section of our weekly paper, and it's a long list each week. Yes, there are a lot more serious crimes going on around here. But this seems to have grabbed everybody's attention.

Sandra Parshall said...

I think it's absurd for any governing body to try to legislate the way people talk. Those old laws should simply be repealed.

Sheila Connolly said...

Sandy, it makes you wonder how many other old laws are still on the books, and could be enforced if anyone chose. But who's willing to do the work of repealing them, with new problems coming along all the time?

As for public profanity, I think that's a social failure rather than a legal one.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Um, isn't the F word obscenity, rather than profanity? Were both included in the statute? Profanity is badmouthing God, while obscenity is badmouthing human body parts and bodily functions, if I'm not mistaken.

Sheila Connolly said...

Liz, Middleboro has labeled the issue "profanity"--I don't think they've considered the nuances. They're too busy trying to take down a brick cross at the threshhold of town (the last big debate, ongoing).

LD Masterson said...

Well, I'm old enough to remember when public profanity laws existed right alongside public intoxication, public urination...pretty much public anything that was deemed offensive to the people who would have to see/hear it. There were minimum levels of acceptible social behavior and people were expected to abide by them. Sometimes I miss those days.

Jeri Westerson said...

Sorry. Free speech is free speech whether you like the content or not. That's the point of "free speech." I side with the swearers.

Anonymous said...

I remember one young lad at the college where I worked who used "f" as his only adjective, adverb, descriptor for most of his first semester. I think he was trying to shock me. Since I had heard the word before he didn't get a reaction. By the time he graduated five semesters and two and a half years later, he didn't swear much at all. Big difference between 17 and 20 - he'd grown up. Some of these folks will too. As for the others; stupid isn't trainable, but maybe the fine will work.

Sandra Parshall said...

Public intoxication and public urination go way beyond offensiveness. Anybody who's out in public while drunk is an immediate danger to everyone around him. And public urination is just plain filthy, destroying the enjoyment of others in parks and other commonly held spaces, and a possible danger to the health of others. So those laws have a solid basis. Considering the way people talk these days, though, the very idea of criminalizing profanity is laughable.