The right to say whatever the @%#&! you want

April 09, 2002|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO -- As a boy, I always looked forward to visiting one particular uncle. This was not because I had a special affection for him, but because he, unlike any other grownups I knew, swore nonstop even in the presence of children.

I found him greatly amusing, and my father bore his younger brother's habit stoically, apparently figuring I wouldn't suffer any permanent damage from hearing those words. As far as I can tell, I didn't.

My uncle was lucky he didn't live in Michigan. It has a law that says, "Any person who shall use any indecent, immoral, obscene, vulgar or insulting language in the presence or hearing of any woman or child shall be guilty of a misdemeanor."

That's the law that got Timothy Boomer in trouble one summer day in 1998. While canoeing down the Rifle River, he fell out of his boat, heard his buddies laughing and responded with a volley of invective that relied mostly on the F-word. This happened within earshot of several families, including one with kids younger than 5.

Unfortunately for Mr. Boomer, his audience included a sheriff's deputy, who issued him a citation. At his trial, he was convicted and given a $75 fine and four days of community service. But recently, a Michigan appeals court ruled the law unconstitutional and let Mr. Boomer and his trash mouth off scot-free.

It may strike traditionalists as absurd to think the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of obnoxious louts to assault our ears. But it does have that line about "freedom of speech," and you can't get much freer with your speech than Mr. Boomer was. So why do we think it can ban them in the hearing of kids?

This is also one of those laws that remains on the books only because it's hardly ever enforced. Michigan is not a particularly profane state, in my experience, but it's safe to say it doesn't have enough jails to hold all the parents, uncles, babysitters, coaches and siblings -- not to mention the occasional deputy sheriff -- who have ever let a curse escape their lips in the presence of minors.

Let's not even consider all the people who resort to vulgarities in the presence of adult females. Or all the people who, without using profanity, say things that could be construed as "immoral" or "insulting" around women and children.

To take a ban like this seriously, you have to take seriously the idea of the government and the courts trying to separate what words are likely to irreparably injure youngsters and which are not. The law, after all, is pretty vague. Are all swear words included?

Or maybe only some bad words are included. In that case, should the prosecutor indict a guy who drops a lug wrench on his foot and emits an expletive that is overheard by his teen-age son? Or does the offender have to stand in the middle of a day care playground yelling the same word over and over?

However you craft the law to cover only some verbal assaults and not others, it would have no chance of passing muster with the Supreme Court. It's been 60 years since the justices upheld the prosecution of a man for calling a fire marshal a "damned fascist," on the theory that the First Amendment doesn't protect "fighting words."

But Mr. Boomer wasn't inviting anyone to fight, which was the crucial test in that case. Anyway, the 1942 ruling has been superseded by rulings that acknowledge Americans' right to express themselves in offensive ways. In 1971, the court overturned the conviction of a man who wore a jacket with the message "F--- the draft." "Surely the state has no right to cleanse public debate to the point where it is grammatically palatable to the most squeamish among us," wrote Justice John Harlan.

So what are parents to do when confronted with the likes of Timothy Boomer? They can leave, they can cover their kids' ears, or they can point the jerk out as an example of how not to behave. Or they can address the offender directly, like this: "Sir, would you mind?" Or: "Hey, @#+&, shut the *!$% up!" It beats calling the cops.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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