Indicting Bad Language

Profanity is a national curse, so to speak. It coarsens entertainment and pollutes casual conversation. It offends the hearer and degrades the speaker.

But should its use carry a criminal penalty?

That question is heading toward trial in rural Michigan. A young man named Timothy Boomer unleashed a few expletives when he fell out of his canoe. A family with young children happened to be rowing by. Policemen on shore saw and heard all, and cited Mr. Boomer for violating Michigan's 102-year-old law prohibiting swearing in front of women and children.

First Amendment activists have been quick to rally to the defendant's side. The American Civil Liberties Union will handle the case.

It's unclear how the initial trial in Standish, Mich., may go. The statute has plenty of supporters locally. But some earlier efforts to prosecute under the law were summarily thrown out by judges as unconstitutional.

Constitutionality may be the issue in court. But other questions face the larger society. The Michigan law, whether it stands or falls, reflects values of good taste and civil behavior as valid today as 100 years ago.

Efforts to champion those values are needed. And while the outcome can be iffy in the courts, clean, intelligent speech can triumph at home, in the workplace, or wherever people take a stand. If millions of Americans hold the line in their own speech, and make known their objection to the public airing of profanity, an unhealthy trend can be reversed. Thus the next generation will get the message: Cussing is crass, not cool.

The Michigan case should be seen not as an anachronistic oddity, but as a timely reminder.

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