legal 5.05

Watch Your Mouth, Wiseguy!

I’ve been writing this column for a while and, as you may have noticed, I have strong, protective feelings about freedom of speech. I cherish the idea that I live in a society in which I can see or read what I choose, decide on my own entertainment, and speak my mind freely. When I am confronted by the fact that there are folks in America who would cheerfully jail me, the editor, and all the readers of this magazine for having Lewd Thoughts, I get hot under the collar.

This has been a lifelong thing with me. It’s why I got an F in citizenship at Boardman Junior High (Boardman is a suburb of Youngstown, Ohio, thank you for asking) more years ago than I care to contemplate. “Does not work well with others and lacks respect for authority.” Ain’t that the truth. I tell you this so you will understand my feelings about the following story.

It seems that this past summer a 16-year-old resident of Falls City, Iowa was having a private conversation with a friend. The mayor of Falls City was within hearing distance, approached the boy, and made a citizen’s arrest for violation of a local ordinance prohibiting “profane language.” The boy was taken to the Falls City police station, questioned, and charged with disorderly conduct. At no time was the boy’s mother notified. (The news reports don’t tell us what he said or, rather, what the mayor thought he said.)

Several days later, the boy apologized for “offending” the mayor, but was told that an apology was not good enough. He was to be prosecuted (as a warning to others, I guess). On August 25th, the boy appeared in court, pleaded not guilty, and then contacted the ACLU of Nebraska. On September 3rd, the ACLU agreed to represent him. That same day, the weasels in the local DA’s office called the boy’s mother and told her that the charge would be dropped.

The local High Sheriff probably knew his goose was cooked."We were told by the boy’s mother that city officials caught wind of our involvement and realized they had an unconstitutional ordinance on their hands," said ACLU of Nebraska Executive Director Matt LeMieux. "It remains to be seen whether we will seek to strike the law from the books."

Matt was, of course, quite right about the law. There’s a 1971 US Supreme Court case called Cohen v. California, in which some yokels in the LA DA’s office convicted a guy for disorderly conduct because he wore a jacket that read “Fuck the Draft” on the back. Now, you can agree or disagree with the sentiment and you can deplore Mr. Cohen’s manners, but he was only expressing an opinion. He wasn’t blocking traffic, creating a commotion, causing a tizzy, or scaring the cows. His jacket was an example of what lawyers call “pure” speech, unaccompanied by conduct, and it’s protected by the First Amendment. You can’t torture “pure” speech into an example of disruptive conduct in order to have an excuse to suppress the speaker’s ideas. So the Supreme Court threw out Cohen’s conviction. But they’re slow to catch up out there in Cornworld: 26 years later, the Iowa cops are still busting people for the “improper” expression of ideas.

Which brings me back to Oregon and to what always aggravates me in cases like this. Some days it seems like the world is just full of busybodies and bluenoses who have less sense than my cat, which isn’t surprising since they have brains the size of raisinettes. And speaking of the Oregon legislature, remember who it is that has tried and tried to gut and fillet our state’s constitutional protections for free speech. If they had their way, it would be possible to prosecute a citizen for disruptive behavior, for using a coarse expression, or for entertaining a lewd thought. These people are tormented by the idea that someone, somewhere, is enjoying something they disapprove of. And they won't rest as long as they believe it 's possible to pass a law which will close down a dance club, a bookstore, or your mind.

And the teachers at Boardman Junior High wondered why I didn’t respect authority.

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