Those who would seek to protect our morals—or at least our sensitivities—from the world around us don’t only exist in Saudi Arabia. The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice face competition in the US, as well. A South Carolina state senator, Robert Ford, has introduced a bill in his state’s congress to make it a felony to use vulgar language in public. Most dismayingly, Sen. Ford is a Democrat, the American political party that has traditionally been an ally of free speech.

You can find the text of the bill here.

Eugene Volokh, Professor of Law at UCLA and co-publisher ofThe Volokh Conspiracy blog, highlights some of the language in the bill, its consequences, as well as why it’s likely unconstitutional:

1. If you say “f**ck” or, I suppose, “damn” or “sh*t” around your own teenager, you’re a felon.
2. If you give, lend, or sell a book, newspaper, or movie to a minor that contains any such words, you’re a felon.
3. If you give the King James Version of the Bible to a minor, knowing that it contains the word “piss,” I expect you’re a felon, too. (I set aside “damn” and “hell” on the theory that they might not be treated as “vulgar” when used in a religious sense rather than figuratively as insults or expressions of disgust.)
4. Two 16-year-olds can be sexually involved in South Carolina (as can an adult and a 16-year-old), but under this law they’d be felons if they talk lewdly to each other. (Why is teenage sex bad? Because it might lead to lewd talk.)

[NOTE: I'm expurgating some of the words because this blog is read in countries where such vulgarities are, if not criminal, at least cause to be blocked by censorship filters. I am aware of the irony, but also the necessity.]


January:15:2009 - 13:54 | Comments & Trackbacks (6) | Permalink
6 Responses to “Religious Police: Alive in America”
  1. 1
    Janet Said:
    January:15:2009 - 19:03 

    When these things have to be legislated, the battle is already lost. Social pressure is much more effective in regulating that kind of behaviour.

    I will admit to wishing there were a little more social pressure in that direction. I’m pretty tired of listening to the oral equivalent of sewer water in public places.

    I’m not so sure about the Democrats being the natural defenders of freedom of speech. There are authoritarians at both ends of the political spectrum, and good arguments have been made that the authoritarian/libertarian axis should be plotted independently of the left/right one.

  2. 2
    John Burgess Said:
    January:15:2009 - 23:00 

    Back in the day, the Republican Party tended to support ‘community values’ at the expense of individual freedom, which was the Democrats banner. Now, they seem to have switched places, with all sorts of speech police–most falling short of making a swear word a felony–telling us what we can say and where we can say it, e.g., ‘campus speech codes’.

  3. 3
    Bangalore Street Pics Said:
    January:16:2009 - 05:56 

    Well, it’s alive and well in India too. We manage without departments with fancy names like in Saudi Arabia. There are unwritten codes of conduct.

  4. 4
    Michel Said:
    January:16:2009 - 08:22 

    While I confirm the phenomenon is more than alive here in France and I personally do not like it, I cannot imagine that it can be solved the way suggested by that Amarican senator;
    for me that must be handled at the family level.

  5. 5
    John Burgess Said:
    January:16:2009 - 09:28 

    The issue of ‘free speech’ is a complicated one, to be sure. I’m not a free speech absolutist; I think there can be very limited restrictions put on some kinds of speech–incitement to violence, for example.

    Foul language is not pleasant, but neither is it so bad that it needs to be criminalized. If we grant people autonomy, that means we put the responsibility for their behavior on their own shoulders, whether or not they do a ‘good job’ with it. The price we pay for allowing free speech is that some people abuse the freedom. I’d rather live with the abuse than the lack of freedom that would result from its legal restraint.

    Sometimes society can provide the answers, depending on how homogeneous it is in its values. But when you have people with different values, you’re going to have different perceptions of what is appropriate, where, and when. That, of course, means that someone is going to be offended, at least sometimes.

    Here’s a brief look at how the US has tried to deal with the issue of obscenity, a much narrower concern than that covered by the proposed SC law.

  6. 6
    Janet Said:
    January:16:2009 - 10:48 

    Sometimes I think you are a mind-reader. You summed up all the things I thought, but didn’t put into my comment, much better than I could have.

    And yes, I am frequently offended, but I am very reluctant to seek legislation to prevent it, because, like you, I consider the abuses of a totalitarian mindset to be much worse. On the other hand, lines do have to be drawn somewhere. But foul language should not be a criminal offense, just a social one.

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