It’s amazing what you can learn about yourself from reading the local ordinances for your community. Apparently I’ve been living the life of a hardened criminal for some time and didn’t realize it. The next time someone tries to tell you it’s a free country and he has the right to say whatever he wants, point him to his city or town’s local ordinances for some enlightenment. My big crime? Mainly language offenses.
You see, I only have one real big vice and that’s swearing. I’ve never learned how to smoke properly, I suck at gambling and I don’t drink much. My abuse of the English language, however, has been known to make some sailors blush. I do try to temper it somewhat when around people that might be offended by such outbursts, but overall I admit to having a potty mouth. Among the popular vices I’ve always considered my tendency toward blasphemy to be a relatively harmless failing that was more or less covered under the First Amendment. Turns out the law here in Canton Township disagrees.
My first surprise was learning that the use of “any indecent, immoral, obscene, vulgar, or insulting language in the presence or hearing of any woman or child” counts as a violation of the Immoral Behavior subsection of the ordinance. My wife and daughter alone could have me locked up for several eons after three years of living with me in Canton. I suppose this means I’ll have to try and stay on their good side from now on.
I wasn’t as surprised to learn that it’s illegal to direct said language at police officers as it’s generally illegal to interact with the police in any manner that doesn’t express the utmost respect for them no matter what community you’re in. They may not be able to earn your respect, but they can certainly enact legislation that tries to force it out of you.
The section prohibiting the use of “any vulgar, indecent, obscene or offensive language or suggesting any lewd or lascivious act in the course of a telephone conversation” did surprise me a bit. There goes all the local business for 1-900-SPANK-ME. What I want to know is how are they enforcing this one? I didn’t see any notices in the ordinance about mandated wire taps on everyone’s phones so I can only expect the cops must be making random checks of people’s houses to ensure they’re not talking dirty on the phone to somebody.
Finally, it is “unlawful for any person within the township who has arrived at the age of discretion to willfully use any indecent, immoral, obscene, vulgar, or insulting language on any public street or other public place, or in any place of business open to public patronage.” Note the expansion of this ordinance from merely being obscene and vulgar to including speech that is insulting. In other words, the next time I go to a move at the local Canton 6 and I come out all disgusted at having not only spent $6.00 on the latest excuse for a Hollywood blockbuster, but also having wasted a good 2 hours of my life that I’ll never get back again unless I somehow manage to invent time travel, I can’t turn to whomever was stupid enough to go to the theater with me and say something like “That movie stunk worse than a three week old fly infested dead possum on the side of the road” because it would be insulting to dead possums everywhere and one of them might overhear me and have me brought up on charges. Not to mention calling up a buddy and saying that the movie “sucked big time” as that’s not only insulting, but would be describing a lewd or lascivious act in the course of a phone conversation.
It would seem that the public at large in Canton, however, must not have bothered to read the local ordinances as just a casual stroll through the local Meijers will reveal that I would at least be in good company while spending my time in jail not to exceed a maximum of 90 days per offense, or pay a fine of not more than $500, or both. Except for kids under 13 years of age (age of discretion according to the Bible) who are apparently able to swear at will without any legal repercussions. Try as I might, I could find nothing in the ordinance that said vulgar kids would get so much as a stern talking to let alone any jail time. Which is a shame, considering the way some of the kids talk to adults around these parts.
So, if I’m reading this law properly then my habit of swearing is technically legal as long as I do it only in the presence of other males over the age of 13, in my home, with all the windows and doors shut, and at a whisper level with my wife and child not at home so as not to damage their moral integrity. Aside form the total lack of any kind of specific definition of what constitutes indecent, immoral, obscene or vulgar, the inclusion of the term “insulting” leaves the ordinance open to all manner of abuse. Apparently the powers that be want everyone in Canton to be happy Prozac patients who never have a bad thing to say to anyone about anything.
Naturally, the truth is that these ordinances are not normally enforced on a day to day basis. Are, in fact, applied in a highly subjective manner dependent on the will and whim of those entrusted to enforce the law and are kept on the books mainly as a fall back method of suppressing speech when it is in the interests of those in power to do so. But, most folks won’t care about all of that until someone decides that something they just said is insulting and vulgar and tries to apply the law to them. After all, who’s definition of vulgar, obscene and insulting do we use and how do you know your opinion on the matter is in line with the law’s opinion?