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South Pasadena vs. Freedom of Speech

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This past week, the first week in March, was declared by the City Council of South Pasadena, California, as "Cuss Free Week".

This past week, anyone caught using "offensive" language in South Pasadena wouldn't likely be thrown in jail just for that. But, according to the Associated Press, "you could be shamed into better behavior by the unsettling glares of residents who take their reputation for civility seriously."

I think this is ridiculous.

This is 2008. The American culture has evolved to where it's much more relaxed than it used to be in many ways. And people cuss more liberally than they used to. While I think most civilized Americans have the good sense to avoid using four-letter words in the presence of young children and business clients, do we really have to worry about the possibility of offending the little old lady from Pasadena?

In today's more relaxed society, many people cuss without even thinking about it. You stub your toe and a four-letter word automatically flies out of your mouth. You'd better hope you don't stub that toe in South Pasadena.

Will South Pasadena also ban cable television? After all, a single episode of the award-winning series "The Sopranos" typically features more four-letter words than a boat full of drunken sailors. It's art imitating life.

I'm not saying that we should all strive towards frequent cussing. I agree that it's probably overdone in today's society. And, while it can be a dramatic way of verbally punctuating a point, it's often also a sign of rhetorical laziness and a lacking vocabulary.

However, outlawing it is not the answer.

This is America, and the First Amendment supposedly guarantees freedom of speech. Sure, there are some situations in which you have to curb it, like when your speech would incite dangerous or illegal behavior.

But if I automatically utter a four-letter word upon stubbing my toe, I am not endangering anyone's wellbeing, and I am not calling for criminal behavior. I'm simply venting.

South Pasadena sees cussing as a threat to its reputation for civility. But what is true civility?

Instead of worrying about people who might be offended by words, perhaps South Pasadena should be worrying about the effects of censorship and intolerance. I find the latter much more offensive.

Hey, South Pasadena, repeat after me: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Not even the four-letter kind.
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Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views (more...)
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