Paul Jacob

Americans have become foul-mouthed. Vulgarity, swearing, cursing . . . such talk is everywhere, and it’s getting out of hand.

Now, I’m not perfect, but I do try to keep my own such outbursts to a minimum. Besides, my mother was right: The more you rely on profanity, the more stupid you appear. When you replace the perfect word with the common vulgarity, you appear intellectually lazy, not bright enough to retrieve from memory and deliver the truly apt nouns and verbs and adjectives.

Yet, there’s a time and place for everything. I can more than sympathize with use of profanity when the situation merits it.

Case in point: A woman in West Scranton, Pennsylvania, is facing a disorderly conduct charge for swearing at her toilet. She could go to jail for a whopping 90 days for this.

And all she did is curse her stopped-up, overflowing toilet.

Unfortunately, her bathroom window was open. Her words overflowed her property boundary and hit her neighbor’s ears. Rather than offer to help her with her toilet, her neighbor complained, telling her to stop using profanity. She responded with gusto.

Little did she know, however, that the man was an off-duty cop. He filed a complaint.

Even if swearing in public can be construed, legitimately, as a crime, there should be a few exceptions, no? Like swearing in your own home. And like swearing at a toilet . . . hers was, perhaps, one of those made during the period when Congress first regulated them to work so much worse than before.

The ACLU has now taken up the woman’s cause. Legal experts at The Volokh Conspiracy and elsewhere tend to agree with the ACLU attorney: there is no case here.

But Scranton’s officials stand by the off-duty cop and the arresting officer. Director of Public Safety Ray Hayes insisted that such incidents “are not as cut and dry as they originally appear.” And, while reading the original new story, I could almost hear what was coming: “Freedom of speech is not an unfettered right.”

Now, in a more charitable mood, I would grant him what he’s no doubt trying to say. “Free speech” must not be construed as the right to say literally anything in any context. You may not say fraudulent things when entering a contract, for instance.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.