KENOSHA, Wisc.—For anyone who doesn't think that words have value, if the Kenosha City Council gets its way, the word "fuck" will have the value of $118.
That's how much the city will be able to fine citizens if the council passes a proposed ordinance that would allow police officers (and, for some reason, firefighters) to issue a ticket if they hear anyone use "profane, vile, filthy or obscene" language while they're going about their duties.
The city already has an ordinance—Chap. XI, Sec. 11.02E—that prohibits the aforementioned foul language within the city, with penalties ranging from $25 up to $500 for each offense. However, according to a story in the Kenosha News, Municipal Court Judge John A. Neuenschwander has ruled that some third party besides the officer and accused offender would need to witness such language being used for a citation under the existing ordinance to be upheld—as several each year already are. The proposed ordinance would do away with the need for a witness.
"If someone's being a knob, you can take them into custody or issue a ticket," said Jesse Downing, chair of the city's Public Safety and Welfare Committee.
(Translation from Kenoshan: "Knob" = "dick.")
Seems that the police and firefighters have been subjected to the "objectionable language" several times while performing their duties, and Alderman Patrick Juliana, sponsor of the ordinance, wants to put an end to it.
"I hear a lot of people using descriptive adjectives with dangling predicates," Juliana said, though fellow Alderman Michael Orth noted that he's heard the cops and firefighters use similar language, and wouldn't want those city employees to themselves become victims of the proposed ordinance.
"Police officers have to be very adamant in some situations and I don't want this to boomerang back where some punk thug files a complaint against a police officer because their feelings got hurt," Orth said.
(Got it: Sauce for the goose ≠ sauce for the gander.)
Not surprisingly, the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin has also come out against the ordinance, which was approved by the committee by a 3-1 vote.
"This ordinance is plainly unconstitutional," said Larry Dupuis, the ACLU of Wisconsin’s legal director. "As long as a person is not interfering with the police carrying out their duties, the rule for officers should be the same rule we all learned in preschool: 'Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.'"
Dupuis cited the 1974 case of Lewis v. City of New Orleans, where the Supreme Court held that, "[T]he freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state."
A statement on the ACLU's website also mentioned the seminal case of Cohen v. California (1971), where the high court upheld the right of a citizen to wear a jacket emblazoned with the phrase "Fuck the Draft" in public places—even ones where "women and children" were known to be present.
"In America, we don't have 'speech police' deciding what language is appropriate," Dupuis said, adding that he wondered whether Downing's use of the word "knob" might subject him to a ticket under the proposed ordinance.
The ACLU also supported repeal of Sec. 11.02E.