Genteel Georgia Town Targets Teens With Anti-Profanity Law
FOUL MOUTHS VS. FREE SPEECH
Jonesboro, Ga., markets itself on a past steeped in Southern gentility. Billed as the "Home of 'Gone With the Wind,' " this town south of Atlanta boasts white-columned antebellum homes and a bank, road, and cafe named after Tara, the mansion in Margaret Mitchell's novel.
Despite quaint antique shops and dogwood-laced lawns, Jonesboro has a problem its forefathers never anticipated - vulgarity and disorderly conduct. The town's solution: an ordinance that bans adults from using profanity in front of kids under 14.
The law is aimed at older teens who hang out with kids in residential areas, often late at night, and scream foul language.
Legal experts say such laws violate free speech, but a handful of small towns across the country, like Jonesboro, see them as a way to preserve their Norman Rockwell lifestyle as big-city problems spill onto Main Street.
"Civilian decency has been lost throughout the country," says Anthony DeCicco, mayor of Raritan Borough, N.J., which instituted an anti-cursing provision in 1994.
"I've received hundreds of letters [and] faxes and gotten phone calls from mayors and administrators saying they have a similar problem," he says. "Small municipalities have implemented [anti-profanity] ordinances and kept it under wraps because they don't want the publicity."
But lawyers and civil libertarians say banning the use of vulgarity or profanity is at odds with the First Amendment. "To begin with the idea that it is an offense if you say certain words seems to me to be clearly unconstitutional," says Thomas Baker, a professor of law at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.
Here in Jonesboro, where residents rarely fail to greet each other on the awning-lined Main Street, the ordinance was just signed into law. It was created after citizens complained that youths were loitering and swearing in their neighborhoods.
"The officers would come in and say, 'What can we do?' We get complaints from the elderly people that they don't like the cussing, but ... we had no code section to cover it," says Mike Montgomery, Jonesboro's police chief.
Now "there'll be a citation written for them to appear in court where the judge will issue whatever."
The ordinance outlaws the use of obscene and vulgar or profane language in the presence of, or by phone to, a person under 14.
It also makes it a misdemeanor to use "fighting words" - described as the kind of personal insults or abusive words that would tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.
"We're not talking about if someone says 'damn,' " Mr. Montgomery says. "It's usually the 'F' word with what they're going to do to them."
"There are a lot of times officers are on the scenes, and [these young adults] are just using vulgar language in front of kids that we felt was inappropriate," he says. "Our attorneys looked over it and made sure I could enforce it."
Mr. Montgomery says the ordinance is aimed in part at reducing some drug trafficking that has plagued several neighborhoods in Jonesboro, a town of about 4,000 where churches dot the well-kept streets. Last October, the town had its first murder in 15 years.
"If we can get them on the little-bitty crimes ... maybe they'll stop some of the drug trafficking," he says. "If they know we're going to be there and they're going to jail, it's going to cut into their business and they'll go somewhere else."
In Raritan Borough, Mayor DeCicco created a disorderly-conduct ordinance banning profanity, because the town had problem with youth crime.
"If someone lets an expletive out while he's got his hand caught in the door ... we're not running over there and locking him up," DeCicco says. "The law is for everyone, but it's used specifically for people ... who congregate in front of these convenience stores or in front of businesses and are using this language to incite or just to be plain vulgar. In those cases, we are removing them and charging them.
"We're trying to keep our streets safe.... Someone has to be at the forefront to tell these young adults ... if you want to use your language fine, stay in your home. We don't want you displaying your vulgarity in front of us," he says.
DeCicco says as a result of the ordinance some of the youth have stopped congregating and swearing. Others have been charged, but the cases have been plea-bargained down to a lesser charge.
The New Jersey office of the American Civil Liberties Union calls the ordinance unconstitutional but hasn't challenged it because it hasn't been enforced.
And while some in law enforcement understand the desire of small-town police departments to pay more attention to quality-of-life crimes - a national policing trend - they say ordinances banning profanity may be going too far.
"The law prescribes and proscribes certain types of behaviors as illegal. So we deal with people who sell drugs, use drugs, shoot at people, rob, rape, pillage," says Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation in Washington.
"But speech is a different category. The use of language is not ordinarily a crime, and when you begin to define it as a crime you run into serious constitutional questions."
Residents in Jonesboro, which is the seat of Clayton County, seem to support the ordinance, though many were unaware it existed.
"I think it's good," says Jane Whitacker, owner of the Tara Cafe. Older "teens today don't think twice about cussing at adults. They have no respect for authority."