The free speech fight in Columbia

Apparently the City of Columbia has done so well at addressing major crimes that they're now free to focus on lesser offenses, launching a crackdown on the public use of profanity. City Council apparently adopted an ordinance prohibiting profanity in public places, in spite of several state court rulings which have stricken down similar speech restrictions, setting the game up for what could be a costly and difficult fight for the city.

In Columbia, people are standing up to City Hall and questioning the new policy, including long-time public policy advocate and researcher Bryan Cox and Republican attorney Todd Kincannon.

Kincannon has been discussing this issue in the Midlands news media, taking aim at the city's ordinance, warning in a WIS TV interview (video in this link), that  the ordinance "puts police officers making judgment calls about speech and the United States Constitution just does not allow that."

Bryan Cox has been questioning the city's ordinance, including testing its limits in some highly-publicized photos (no, he hasn't been cited or arrested yet). He spells out his concerns:

I completely understand and sympathize with the pure, yet short-sighted, motives of individuals who wish your children didn’t have to hear these things at a city park. However; the ripple effect across society if we allow “rude” actions to be criminalized would have devastating consequences on the liberty we now enjoy. I argue failing to pass that birthright on to our children would be a far greater tragedy than any discomfort we now bear tolerating the noise around us.

While I’m confident this attempt will be thwarted on first amendment grounds, I hope someone here will pause for a brief moment and reflect upon the absurdity at the root of it all. We’re talking about throwing individuals into jail because they used a subjectively “profane” word that does no harm to anyone. Again, we are going to throw people — just like you and me — into jail ... because they used subjectively rude language.

In other words, this could mean the arrest or thousands of people at Williams-Brice Stadium for yelling "Go Cocks", or of Middle Eastern studies students who mispronounce the word "Shiite".

Brad Warthen, a veteran news media and public relations guru in the Midlands, has been discussing this subject as well. While he recognized Cox' position, he expressed sympathy for the concerns that prompted the ordinance:

I have to say that while Bryan may be on firm legal ground here, my sympathy lies with anyone trying to make our public spaces less coarse. I don’t think we, or our children, or our wives, or our innocent asses, for that matter, should have to be subjected to the kind of filthy that is routine poured forth in loud voices in our parks and elsewhere.

Warthen later suggested that Columbia officials look at ways to use technology to automate enforcement of the ordinance. We suspect this would free the cops to chase after the real criminals they should have been after in the first place, but they could do that simply by not adopting such an ordinance in the first place.
Last year, Town of Bonneau made an effort to "clean up" public conduct by citing someone for driving through the town with a pair of Truck Nuts attached to her bumper. While they might have thought they were making a statement, making money, or both, the defendant found an attorney and is fighting back, arguing that what some may consider distasteful is still free speech. Looks like Columbia has baited the same kind of opposition with their efforts. Let's hope they don't drag it out in a similar manner.

1 Response to "The free speech fight in Columbia"

  1. Wesley Donehue 4/1/12 21:20
    It's ok to piss on monuments, but cursing isn't allowed. Sounds like our city as really got the concept of free speech backwards.

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