BY A VOTE of 183-50, town meeting members in Middleborough, Mass., last week approved a bylaw making public cursing a civil offense and authorizing police to enforce the ban by fining offenders $20.
Town Hall may find it hard to collect on those fines. Assuming Cohen v. California is still good law, the First Amendment's protection of free speech extends to using four-letter words in public, and as soon as the new ordinance is challenged it will almost certainly be struck down. Legally, town authorities don't have a leg to stand on. But their concern with enforcing public standards deserves better than the eye-rolling mockery it has been getting.
Cohen was the 1971 case in which the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Los Angeles man arrested for disturbing the peace after he appeared in municipal court wearing a jacket with the F-word on it. (The jacket, with the word spelled out, read: "F--- the Draft.") Writing for the majority, Justice John Marshall Harlan conceded that "the particular four-letter word being litigated here is perhaps more distasteful than most." Nevertheless, he continued, "one man's vulgarity is another's lyric" -- and "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."
When it comes to freedom of speech, my convictions are generally libertarian: The proper response to bad speech is not censorship, but better speech. The First Amendment wouldn't be worth much if it protected only anodyne and sensible expression. What makes it such a vital safeguard of American liberty is that it shields ugly and obnoxious speech as well -- even that of odious hate groups or lying propagandists. I line up with Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who wrote more than 80 years ago that the Bill of Rights safeguards not merely "free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate."