What the &#?@!!?
Chances are, when you read that sentence, you filled in the last word with an expletive. We knew you would. Still, we didn’t print the word in question because we didn’t want to offend you.
That’s the odd thing about swearing. You know a whole slew of curse words; you may even say some yourself. But you don’t want to read them in the newspaper or listen to them on the radio or hear them broadcast on the public address system as you stroll down a supermarket aisle with your children.
Although we use them all the time, these words are taboo. They’re censored.
Here in Michigan, they’re also illegal.
Well, not exactly illegal. It’s OK to say "&#?@!!” if you’re alone. For the last 102 years, however, it has been illegal in Michigan to “use any indecent, immoral, obscene, vulgar or insulting language in the presence or hearing of any woman or child.”
It’s a dusty old law, tucked in a section of the penal code that bans unmarried cohabitation and exhibition of deformed human bodies. But it’s law nonetheless. Just ask Timothy Boomer.
Boomer, a 24-year-old engineering technician, has been charged with using obscenities in front of a woman and her children. The case goes to court here today. And it’s kicked off quite a debate in this one-stoplight town of 1,400, tucked beside Lake Huron.
Boomer admits he talked dirty. It happened after he capsized his canoe while paddling down the Rifle River last summer. He was ticked off at falling in the water. And he was annoyed when his buddies guffawed. So he swore. Then he swore more. It became a game, the swearing; his friends were hooting at him, he was splashing them, and they were all cussing each other out.
“It wasn’t out of anger or hostility or vulgarity,” Boomer explained. “It was just clean fun.”
For him, maybe.
But not for the woman canoeing by with two young children. She covered her toddler’s ears to block the smut. Her 5-year-old son heard it all. Nor was it fun for the sheriff’s deputy patrolling the river. He said he could hear Boomer’s F-words a quarter-mile away. And he decided that Arenac County, Mich., would not put up with such profanity. So he pulled over Boomer’s canoe and charged him with a misdemeanor.
“Our job is to uphold the law,” Sheriff Jim Mosciski said. “It was a good ticket.”
Needless to say, Boomer didn’t think so.
Swearing, a criminal offense? That just didn’t sound right. He called the American Civil Liberties Union and got a lawyer.
It’s a Question of the Word ‘Indecent’
In district court today, Boomer’s attorney will ask a judge to dismiss the case and declare the law unconstitutional. It shreds our right to free speech, he will argue. If that’s not bad enough, it’s also way too vague.
“What today defines ‘indecent’ . . . in the age of MTV, shock trash radio and the Starr report to Congress?” lawyer William Street wrote in his brief defending Boomer. Are political attack ads so “insulting” that they should not air in front of children? Are the Linda Tripp tapes so “immoral” the state must not let women hear them? Where do we draw the line?
Prosecutor Richard Vollbach Jr. has a simple response: People are smart enough to know obscenity when they hear it. And Boomer’s outburst was most definitely obscene.
Vollbach defends the law as vital to “protect families, and particularly children, from loud and disgusting language.” And what of the claim that it tramples free speech? “Balderdash,” he responds. Shouting obscenities when you fall from a canoe hardly counts as speech, Vollbach argues. It’s more an animal reflex, like crying when you’re hurt. Surely it doesn’t merit constitutional protection.
Vollbach also points out that similar local and state ordinances have been upheld in Oregon, Georgia and Illinois.
And What About the Tainted Airwaves?
Both sides claim to have public opinion behind them. In truth, however, this town is divided as folks argue about the peculiar power of swearing.
Call it the cuss fuss. And listen in to an earful of it:
* It’s the afternoon lull at the Standish Bakery, just one customer smoking over coffee at the counter, the whole place smelling sticky sweet like glazed doughnuts. Chatting as they clean up, employees Jannette Deering and Polly Ann LaBean find they agree: They’re glad the police are going after foul language.
Oh, they both use profanity; of course they do. “I swear right along with the best of them,” Deering says. But not in front of strangers or children. It’s all about respect, they decide. Hurling dirty words in public is disrespectful.
And yeah, sure, darn right it should be illegal.
“You have a right to say whatever you want,” Deering begins.
“But you don’t have to use bad words to say it,” LaBean interrupts, finishing the thought. “I like to be treated like a lady.”
* As he fills prescriptions at Cedar Drugs on this gray and soggy winter day, pharmacist Bill Schaefer is thinking of the trash his 12-year-old son tunes in on the radio.
Maybe the deejays aren’t using profanity, but surely they’re vulgar--proudly so. They mock gays. They make fun of foreigners. They’re crude and they’re nasty. And Schaefer’s son loves them.
Weighed against the radio filth, Boomer’s outburst doesn’t seem so bad to Schaefer. His boy needs protection from the raunchy deejays he idolizes, not from a few profanities uttered by a stranger. He wants a crackdown on the media, not on some out-of-town potty mouth. “The deejays have much more of an impact on kids than some drunk walking down the street swearing,” he explains.
Plus, there’s that matter of the Bill of Rights.
“Morally, I’m against swearing,” Schaefer says, “but in the Constitution, we’re supposed to have the right to free speech.”
* In their Harley-Davidson shirts and Harley-Davidson caps, looking gruff and tough and brawny, Bill Olsen and Jack Gardner jaw with their wives in the smoky dusk of the Granton Inn bar.
Like many locals, they’re fed up with the carousing that wrecks the peace of the Rifle River each summer. Families go there for picnics and run into campers drinking themselves silly. It’s become a real aggravation. So Olsen and Gardner are all for busting anyone who mouths off at the river.
Matter of fact, they say--emphatic now, voices rising--cursing has no place in public at all.
Except maybe at a hog rally.
“It’s about time they started doing something about it,” Olsen growls.
His wife, Audrey, agrees: “If we allow kids to hear these things, then by the time they’re adults, that’s all they’re going to know. That’s how they’re going to communicate. And then what kind of society will we have?”
* Scott Allen snorts at the idea of prosecuting cussers.
He’s sitting in the bar with his fiancee and her 7-year-old son, kicking back over a beer and some chips. If you’re so offended by profanity, he says, consider his advice: “You’ve got feet. Let them take you elsewhere.”
This case has touched a nerve not only in Standish, but across the state, and Boomer is bewildered by the hubbub.
He only wanted to avoid a penalty of a $100 fine and up to 90 days in jail. Yet somehow he’s become a poster boy for free speech--or a symbol of the woeful decline of civility, depending on whom you ask.
Boomer is not the first person charged with indecent speech in Michigan. Most of the targets have pleaded guilty, paid their fine and been done with it.
Two people have challenged the law in the past 20 years: a woman cited for screaming obscenities at her teenage neighbors and a man charged with swearing at a police officer as his wife stood nearby. In both cases, district court judges declared the law unconstitutional. But their rulings applied only to their counties; elsewhere in Michigan, the law remains on the books. Boomer’s case also is unlikely to set statewide precedent unless it is appealed to the state Supreme Court.
In Arenac County, Mosciski hopes he will continue to be able to apply the law, which he’s used on everyone from smelt fishermen with overly salty speech to drunks cursing blue streaks in the hospital emergency room. “I agree with it,” he said. “I don’t think that sort of language should be used.”
But can we really bleep out profanity? Would we want to?
Although we rank the expletives Boomer shouted among our language’s top five most offensive words, they’re also among the top five most frequently used, according to Timothy Jay, the author of “Cursing in America” and a professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.
We use these words precisely because they’re offensive, Jay says--because they express emotions that can’t be conveyed with a gentle “oh, darn” or “gee whiz.”
“The language you use when you’re angry or sexual or funny is part of how you define yourself as a person,” Jay contends.
If so, censoring that language may be impossible. It would be tantamount to “criminalizing the daily indignities of life,” says UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh.
Volokh believes that the Michigan law violates both our free-speech rights and our constitutional guarantee of equal protection (because it shields women, but not men, from foul language). He sees another, more practical, problem as well. “We can’t rely on the law to solve every social problem,” he says. “In the end, enforcing statutes like this causes less respect for the law than just letting [the offensive speech] lie.”
Or as Jeff Robinson, owner of the gym here, put it: “There are a lot of other criminal acts out there that should be pursued. This is a silly way for Standish to get on the map.”