Robert Ford is an ignorant censorious dick.
Between offering the title and saying that, I could be on the hook for two felonies in South Carolina, if state senator Robert Ford, a Democrat, has his way.
Ford has offered a bill in the South Carolina General Assembly to make publishing profanity in public — whether in writing or orally — a felony:
(A) It is unlawful for a person in a public forum or place of public accommodation wilfully [sic] and knowingly to publish orally or in writing, exhibit, or otherwise make available material containing words, language, or actions of a profane, vulgar, lewd, lascivious, or indecent nature.
(B) A person who violates the provisions of this section is guilty of a felony and, upon conviction, must be fined not more than five thousand dollars or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.
Sit back for a moment and admire the breathtaking scope of that. I'm pretty sure Ford just proposed to made it illegal to put on any play with profanity in it. Or to sell a book with profanity in it. Or to hold up a sign with profanity in it. Or to have a conversation in a restaurant featuring profanity. Or to show a movie, hand out a flier, write a letter with profanity in it. And that's leaving aside the ludicrously vague and overbroad categories of "vulgar," "lewd," "lascivious," or "indecent." What the hell do those mean?
Ford also wants to punish anyone who lets OUR PRECIOUS CHILDREN encounter "profane, vulgar, lewd, lascivious, or indecent" words:
(A) It is unlawful for a person to disseminate profanity to a minor if he wilfully and knowingly publishes orally or in writing, exhibits, or otherwise makes available material containing words, language, or actions of profane, vulgar, lewd, lascivious, or indecent nature.
(B) A person who violates the provisions of this section is guilty of a felony and, upon conviction, must be fined not more than five thousand dollars or imprisoned not more than five years, or both."
Robert Ford just made it a felony to teach, or give a kid to read, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye, most of the works of William Shakespeare, and — fuck it, this list is pointless. Most of the Western canon arguably violates this law. Just don't read, kids. You can still aspire to be a state senator.
Someone needs to acquaint Robert Ford with the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, branding it on his ass if possible. While they are at it, they may want to acquaint him with fifty years of Supreme Court jurisprudence on the topic of obscenity and profanity. How about, say, Cohen v. California, a four-decade-old case overturning a conviction for wearing a jacket that read "Fuck the Draft"?
Surely the State has no right to cleanse public debate to the point where it is grammatically palatable to the most squeamish among us. Yet no readily ascertainable general principle exists for stopping short of that result were we to affirm the judgment below. For, while the particular four-letter word being litigated here is perhaps more distasteful than most others of its genre, it is nevertheless often true that one man's vulgarity is another's lyric. Indeed, we think it is largely because governmental officials cannot make principled distinctions in this area that the Constitution leaves matters of taste and style so largely to the individual.
It is possible — just — that Robert Ford is genuinely ignorant of the import of four decades of First Amendment law. But the far more likely explanation is that Robert Ford simply does not care. Ford, as a South Carolina legislator, swore an oath:
Members of the General Assembly, and all officers, before they enter upon the duties of their respective offices, and all members of the bar, before they enter upon the practice of their profession, shall take and subscribe the following oath: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I am duly qualified, according to the Constitution of this State, to exercise the duties of the office to which I have been elected, (or appointed), and that I will, to the best of my ability, discharge the duties thereof, and preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of this State and of the United States. So help me God."
So Ford, if not an abject ignoramus, is an oathbreaker. By offering for a vote a law that is patently unconstitutional under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution (not to mention Article 1, Section 2 of the South Carolina Constitution), Ford has defied his oath to preserve, protect and defend those guarantees.
That, frankly, is why I care about this sort of thing. Whenever I express outrage at some picayune law proposed by some obscure local politician, someone always jumps up to say that the law will never pass, or will be struck down if it does, and that I am making something out of nothing. But I maintain that actions like Ford's are the real obscenity and do more violence to civil society than any chorus of profanity-shouters. People like Ford legitimize disregard and even contempt for our constitutional freedoms. They normalize a system in which our leaders focus not on whether something is within the scope of their legitimate power, but whether they can get it enacted or approved. That attitude is far more of a threat to our children than all the dirty words ever uttered.
Edit: Prof. Volokh, who posted at about the same time I did, made the same point about Cohen, but has a somewhat less excitable take on the whole thing.
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