Should it be a crime to use foul language in front of children?
Monday, a Michigan judge ordered a 24-year-old man to stand trial for using profanity in front of a woman and her two young children. A sheriff's deputy claims he heard the accused man curse for three minutes after falling from a canoe into a river near the family. The cursing man and his mouth face 90 days in jail and a $100 fine if convicted. The judge felt compelled to uphold an 1897 Michigan law that bans the use of foul language in front of children.
The American Civil Liberties Union claims the law violates the right to free speech.
The judge argues, "This cannot be what the framers of the Constitution and the First Amendment intended to protect."
We agree, but we don't feel comfortable allowing the police to determine what language is proper and what language is profanity -- especially when the definition of "proper" can change depending on the company you are in. Do we really want to create laws to force courteous behavior?
A better approach is suggested in a February Reader's Digest article entitled "On Behalf of Common Courtesy." The article addresses the idea that all of us need to turn up the peer pressure and not stand for such rude, offensive behavior.
The author recalls his father confronting some nearby diners in a restaurant who were using foul language while arguing. His father stood up, approached the couple and asked them to stop cursing in front of his wife and children. We're sure many of you readers remember the days when this was common practice, because our society expected civil behavior in public. It's time we expect it again.
If we hear someone spewing out filthy language in front of our children, we should politely, but firmly, ask them to stop. Whether we are successful or not is not as important as the message marked by the effort. Our children and those around us learn to be more aware of other people's feelings.
The spirit of the 100-year-old Michigan law is applicable today, but perhaps the letter of the law clouds the real issue: it's not just about free speech, it's about courtesy to others.