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The Zone Between `Should' and `Must'

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PUBLIC profanity has been outlawed by the City Council in Quincy, Mass., home of two presidents, John Adams and John Quincy Adams, and of John Hancock, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The problem for which this is supposed to be the solution is that groups of teenagers have tended to gather at the local bus and subway station, and their unpleasant language, directed at one another and at passersby, has offended local officials.

Those particularly offended include the mayor, who is trying to nurture tourism in his city, and doesn't want rowdies to scare people away. City officials are negotiating with the federal government for the establishment of a national heritage park in Quincy, site of the mansion in which the two presidents lived and the church where they worshipped.

One can empathize; it's all a struggling tourist site needs for the word to get around, ``It's an interesting old house, but that crowd outside the station is bad news. Maybe you should visit the JFK birthplace in Brookline instead.''

But the new ordinance is vague on what constitutes ``profane or obscene language,'' and the executive director of the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts has promised to challenge the measure if it is enforced. Others seem to feel the ordinance is simply overkill. One city councilor said, ``There are only a few punks that we must take care of.... This did not call for a law....''

Indeed. The mayor and the council illustrate the kind of confusion that can occur in the zone between ``should'' and ``must'' - or in this case, between ``shouldn't'' and ``mustn't.'' Clearly kids shouldn't just be hanging around the station and shocking passersby with their colorful vocabulary, not just because they are a nuisance but because they should have more constructive activities in their lives.

But the answer isn't another law, especially not one of dubious constitutionality. Remember the good old days when a police officer could just tell potential troublemakers to ``move along''?


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