Last week, the small town of Middleborough, Mass., population 23,000, decided it was fed up with its darned kids and their darned swearing ways.
With a vote of 183 to 50, the town decided at a meeting to give police officers the authority to uphold a $20 fine for swearing in public in order to maintain quality of life.
Banning swearing in public may seem like a good idea, but it has no effect whatsoever on what is done in private. The townfolk of Middleborough are happy, especially because the delinquent teenagers cannot afford to pay for every swear word they say.
Nonetheless, as stated in a CNN article by Columbia University professor John McWhorter, a columnist for The New York Daily News and contributing editor for The New Republic, this decision is like trying to put out a fire with an eyedropper. For one, the police cannot maintain constant monitoring of the public, however much they would like to do so.
Moreover, there is no accurate way to define what is profane. Is it language that members of older generations would blush upon hearing? Is it the taboo language that remains socially unacceptable, despite the increasing commonality of profanity? What happens when some words are used to refer to their actual meanings, with a less-than-profane intention? There is, realistically, no way to draw the line, which makes for messy enforcement at best.
The issue of how to deal with profanity is not new to the town, which in 1968 passed a public profanity law that made swearing a crime, but the police never enforced it. Nonetheless, creating a law to make it easier for police to reprimand offenders seems to be the obvious solution, at least to the town meeting voters.
The constitutionality of allowing profanity in public has been examined many times nationally. In 1971, in Cohen v. California, the Supreme Court upheld the First Amendment rights of a man wearing a jacket stating F— the Draft, deciding that one mans vulgarity is anothers lyric.
Similarly, in 1776, General George Washington ordered a ban on profanity in the Continental Armies, but the law was seldom obeyed, according to TIME magazine.
Profanity is not always protected by the First Amendment. Fighting words, true threats and incitement to imminent lawless action do not fall under the category of protected free speech and for good reason.
Nonetheless, with profanity ranging from Kanye Wests Gold Digger and other musical hits to President Barack Obama asking whose a– to kick in a 2010 television interview after the BP oil spill, the little town of Middleborough will have no means of upholding constitutionality or ensuring the enforcement of its new law.
And while many are offended by profanity, it does seem to be increasingly prevalent in todays movies, music, literature, television and society in general. The First Amendment rights of each individual must be upheld above the discomfort of those who are offended.