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South Carolina Legislator Trying To Ban Vulgar Words in Public:

Here's the bill, which would make it a felony "for a person in a public forum or place of public accommodation wilfully 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." Likewise, it would be a felony "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."

To begin with, of course, this is unconstitutionally overbroad under Cohen v. California (the Fuck the Draft case), even if "profane" is read to mean "vulgar" rather than "characterized by irreverence or contempt for God or sacred principles or things." It may also be unconstitutionally vague; see Reno v. ACLU, which suggests that such terms are potentially vague when their scope isn't narrowed by other provisions of the statute (compare Hamling v. U.S.).

But beyond this, what's shocking is how ridiculously broad this proposal is, even to people who I take it would disagree with Cohen:

  1. If you say "fuck" or, I suppose, "damn" or "shit" around your own teenager, you're a felon.

  2. If you give, lend, or sell a book, newspaper, or movie to a minor that contains any such words, you're a felon.

  3. If you give the King James Version of the Bible to a minor, knowing that it contains the word "piss," I expect you're a felon, too. (I set aside "damn" and "hell" on the theory that they might not be treated as "vulgar" when used in a religious sense rather than figuratively as insults or expressions of disgust.)

  4. Two 16-year-olds can be sexually involved in South Carolina (as can an adult and a 16-year-old), but under this law they'd be felons if they talk lewdly to each other. (Why is teenage sex bad? Because it might lead to lewd talk.)

What is Senator Ford thinking?

Thanks to Bill Poser (Language Log) for the pointer.

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