Blog: Aw, shucks! Anti-cussing resolution delayed

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Aw, shucks. That’s what supporters of an anti-cussing resolution are likely saying today.

A high-profile attempt by California lawmakers to cleanse the public arena of filthy language, at least for a week, seems to have hit a stumbling block in the state Senate — the state’s $20 billion budget deficit.

The measure, which would designate the first week of March as “Cuss Free Week” — was inspired by a 14-year-old student who formed a No Cussing Club in 2007 at his junior high school. The resolution would not have imposed any criminal penalties.

The California resolution differs markedly from a measure discussed last year in the South Carolina Legislature that would make it a crime to curse in public places and impose criminal penalties of up to five years in prison.

Many states already have laws that prohibit profane, vulgar or blasphemous language. Though rarely enforced, people occasionally land in trouble for their potty mouths. People have been punished for cursing in their canoes, on public highways and even for a toilet tirade.

While well-intentioned, lawmakers should realize that the First Amendment protects profanity in the public sphere unless it crosses the line into true threats, fighting words or incitement to imminent lawless action. And although public school officials can limit profanity by students, adults often have a First Amendment right to speak in bad taste.

In Cohen v. California (1971) , the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the conviction of a man who wore a jacket with the words “Fuck the Draft” in a California courthouse. Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote for the Court that “surely the State has no right to cleanse public debate to the point where it is grammatically palatable to the most squeamish among us.”

Harlan added, in language that has become First Amendment lore: “For, while the particular four-letter word being litigated here is perhaps more distasteful than most others of its genre, it is nevertheless often true that one man's vulgarity is another's lyric. Indeed, we think it is largely because governmental officials cannot make principled distinctions in this area that the Constitution leaves matters of taste and style so largely to the individual.”

Lawmakers should heed Harlan’s language and leave matters of taste and style to individuals. Besides, taming California’s budget deficit is a far more worthy goal than stamping out a few choice curse words.