A blow for civility and the First Amendment

If ever there was an example of a cure being worse than the disease, the good burghers of Middleborough, MA, have provided it.

If ever there was an example of a cure being worse than the disease, the good burghers of Middleborough, MA, have provided it.

Earlier this month, residents voted by nearly a 4-to-1 margin to allow the police to impose a $20 fine on any citizen caught using profanity in a public place. Apparently, none of the voters wanted to curtail their ability to curse a blue streak in the privacy of their homes.

The people of Middleborough were reacting to a problem that seems to be growing ever more pervasive in our society, the uncivil way in which we behave.

For the past three years, our firm has conducted public opinion polls that have consistently shown that a significant majority of the American people view incivility as a national problem, and one that is getting worse instead of better.

But the people in Massachusetts are choosing the wrong way to attack the problem. According to various news accounts, the solution in Middleborough is to give police the discretion to choose what language is profane. We can all agree on what that language is, right? Wrong.

In the words of the estimable Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan II, “one man's vulgarity is another man's lyric.” To continue the metaphor, it's as if we decided to rid the world of offensive music by imposing a fine for listening to the Sex Pistols - an idea I would vote for, but would not want my local constable to enforce.

Imagine the conversation around the police station in the morning as the staff sergeant goes around the room informing his patrol officers what words they should be listening for and what words are exempt from the $20 ticket. “#$%@#” and “$&@!)+” must be penalized, but it's all right if you hear someone shout “hey, baby” at a good looking woman if she walks past them.

Is that really ok? Might not the woman be more offended by this display of profanity than someone who hears the other words I dare not write in a serious publication?

The First Amendment to the Constitution makes it pretty clear that Congress shall make no laws abridging freedom of speech. It is not an absolute freedom, of course. We can't shout “fire” in a crowded place. But do we really want to burden our police forces with the task of controlling the words that come out of our mouths?

Ironically, the vote in Middleborough comes as there are hopeful, though small, signs that the American people are doing something about incivility. While incivility in the political world remains rampant, according to our poll, in 2012 Americans reported experiencing fewer incidents of incivility in their personal lives than they did in 2011.

Uncivil acts in driving, at work, and in the neighborhood were all down from the previous years. And significant numbers of Americans reported taking action against the uncivil behavior they faced.

Forty-four percent said they ended a friendship because a person was uncivil to them; 39% defriended or blocked someone online because of poor behavior; 23% quit a job; 14% moved a child out of a school; and 13% moved from their homes as a result of uncivil neighbors.

Although these are clearly unpleasant things to do, they demonstrate what we can hope is a real willingness on the part of the American people to act in the face of incivility. As Howard Beale, the fictional anchor in the classic movie, Network, said: “We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore.” Civilly, of course.

Maybe our fellow citizens are deciding to police themselves. With all due respect to the people of Middleborough, that's better – in this case – than having the police do it.

Lance Morgan is chief communications strategist at Powell Tate.

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