Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Price on Freedom of Speech Raised to $500

Countless bumper stickers across the country remind us that “Freedom Isn’t [or occasionally Ain’t] Free,” and 2004’s Team America: World Police took this one step further by calculating the price of freedom to be precisely $1.05. Apparently, though, the good folks in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, have decided to up the ante considerably. On December 21, 2010, bus passenger and recent Milwaukee transplant Terry Duncan found out just how costly his freedoms were after he was fined five hundred dollars by an undercover police officer simply for speaking.1

A few things worth mentioning here:
  • Duncan was not acting in a hostile or abusive manner to the driver or his fellow passengers.
  • Duncan was not threatening the president (or past presidents), which as we all know is a federal offense, even if the president in question, past or present, kinda sucks. Which he quite possibly does. Warren G. Harding, I’m looking at you.
  • Duncan was not shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, which is considered a no-no if the theater is not, in fact, on fire.
What Terry Duncan did on that bus, simply put, was use naughty words. He wasn’t swearing at anybody, but rather was merely “engaged in a conversation when he let the expletives slip.” He said both “fuck” and “shit”2 conversationally—perhaps as little as once each3—and received not only a ticket but also a healthy ration of smirking disdain from fellow passengers who, as accomplished legal scholars, are well aware that their Constitutionally-protected right to not be offended trumps others’ rights to free speech.4

We here at Bowling in the Dark tend to swear fairly often, but despite our personal flaws, we aren’t big fans of vulgarity. We’re saddened when we hear it from the mouths of children (except when it’s funny), and believe that excessive use of profanity is embarrassing and usually a sign of a limited vocabulary. But the unpleasant nature of naughty language doesn’t give us the right to control anybody’s language but our own.

An official statement from the Milwaukee County sherriff’s department addressing the matter claims that “people should be able to ride the bus without feeling intimidated by someone’s language or behavior.” Bus passengers interviewed after the incident tended to agree:
“You can’t swear. A lot of people don't like all the ‘f’ words and ‘s’ words around their kids, and there’s a lot of elderly people on the bus, and you have to respect your elders so, that’s what he gets.—bus passenger Ebony Jett6

“I think he should have got [the ticket]. Kids be on the bus, families be on the bus. Nobody wants to hear that kind of language.”—bus passenger Jean Jones

People should not get on the bus having to hear disruptive conversations. You can get a fine for that. It’s the law. You can’t do that.”—bus passenger Tiffany Coo

In the interest of giving equal time to opinions actually worth having, though, let’s hear from somebody who actually fought for others’ liberties instead of trying to whittle away the ones he didn’t like:
“If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”—George Washington
We admit that General Washington didn’t specifically say “and that includes naughty words, too,” so it could be argued—albeit very stupidly—that he may actually have approved of stomping on certain folks’ rights when he didn’t like what he was hearing, despite having clearly stated the opposite. Fortunately, other smart folks have chimed in on the subject over the last 2,300 years:

“Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself.”—author Salman Rushdie 
“The basis of a democratic state is liberty.”Aristotle, 384 BC-322 BC

“The First Amendment is often inconvenient. But that is besides the point. Inconvenience does not absolve the government of its obligation to tolerate speech.”—U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy
Salman Rushdie, as you should well know, has more experience than most anybody at being persecuted simply for expressing himself; Aristotle, while perhaps better known for having married Jackie Kennedy, also dabbled in education, science, government, philosophy, politics, and ethics,7 and is known for knowing a thing or two; and it could be argued that a U.S. Supreme Court Justice with more than three decades of judicial experience has a better sense of what’s appropriate, legally and Constitutionally speaking, than the Milwaukee County Sherriff’s Department or a bunch of schmucks on a bus.

But ignore all their qualifications if you like, and instead just boil down the comments from each group to their basics, and decide which attitude sums up what this country and its citizens’ attitudes on free expression should be. In fact, skip that first part; we’ve boiled it down for you:
  1. “You must be allowed to say what you want, even if I don’t like it.”
  2. “You can’t say what you want because I don’t like it.”
Or, to illustrate it a touch more crudely,

Figure 1.1: the two ends of the spectrum of opinions on freedom of speech. 

Pick a side. 

(Hint: the guy on the left is very unlikely to advocate killing the douchebag on the right.)

1. We use the word speaking here for convenience; it’s a handy way to represent the much more cumbersome phrase exercising one’s once-Constitutionally-protected right to free speech.
2. If you’re offended that we typed out the words “fuck” and “shit” instead of a more family-friendly “f___” or Beetle Bailey-style “@$#!” . . . well, frankly, it’s a little surprising that you allow yourself to have unmonitored access to the internet, but nevertheless we sincerely apologize for having troubled you with language that, admittedly, can occasionally or even often be inappropriate or offensive. You’d be well within your rights to ask us to tone it down, and it’s quite possible that we’d oblige—we may be jerks, but we don’t like looking like jerks. On the other hand, if you think you have or deserve the right to prevent us from using this kind of language, you can go fuck yourself.
3. Duncan said he used “two words,” which could mean that he swore only twice or that he swore multiple times, but used only those two particular words—the articles we’ve found haven’t been particularly clear on this point.
4. Here we’re trying to use irony,5 but it’s a slippery concept that we can usually recognize but can’t really define and rarely use properly. If we haven’t pulled it off correctly, and you’re not sure what we’re getting at, contact us privately and we’ll send you a copy of our extensive notes.
5. Some might say that we’re not being ironic, we’re just being pricks. That’s probably fair.
6. We here at Bowling in the Dark have no way of knowing whether this person’s name really is “Ebony Jett,” but we promise you that we weren’t the ones who made it up.
7. No real footnote here, we’re just a bit giddy to see the words politics and ethics in the same sentence. It’s like spotting a unicorn.


  1. Freedom of Speech does not mean freedom to say absolutely any thing you want, wherever you want, without repercussions. All freedoms have limits... no freedom is absolute, because if my individual freedoms are absolute, they would then trump everybody else's freedoms, which must also be absolute, thereby creating one of those infinite error loops that makes robots kill themselves. There must be a balance there, and the only way to find a balance is to put certain limits on freedoms, which we have done: you can't play your electric guitar at 3am, you can't yell "fire" in a crowded theater, and apparently you can't curse on a bus in Milwaukee.

    When you step on the bus you're agreeing to follow the bus rules, and if the bus rules say "no profanity," then you should either be ready to accept the consequences if you break the rule, or you should have chosen to not use the bus in the first place. If the guy had been fined for announcing to the bus, "Barack Obama is a socialist," that would clearly be a violation of his freedom of speech. But if he were fined for saying "Barack Obama is a fucking socialist," it's a different issue. In this case, the other bus passengers' rights DO trump this guy's right to use naughty language... because he violated the contract to which all bus passengers implicitly agree when they step on the bus.

    It's a stupid law and a stupid fine, but it's not a Freedom of Speech issue.

  2. So you’re saying that a rule permitting the government to limit what people are allowed to say and when they’re allowed to say it is not a free speech issue? That doesn’t add up at all. What else could a law limiting speech be but a free speech issue?

    “When you step on the bus you're agreeing to follow the bus rules . . . then you should either be ready to accept the consequences if you break the rule, or you should have chosen to not use the bus in the first place.”

    Here you’re conflating “rules” and “right.” The simple fact of a rule’s existence does not, in itself, give it any moral or ethical weight. To use the most obvious example: in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, the “rule to which all bus passengers implicitly agreed” was that black people had to give up their seats to white people; this rule was just as real as “no swearing on the bus,” but its existence did not make it right.

    In this case, the other bus passengers' rights DO trump this guy's right to use naughty language... because he violated the contract to which all bus passengers implicitly agree when they step on the bus.

    Just as a rule’s existence does not by itself make it right, neither does most folks’ “accept[ing] the consequences” of a rule make it any more acceptable. Most folks in Montgomery accepted their bus rules, too. That they were willing to accept this “contract,” in clear violation of their rights, does not make it okay for others to be coerced into the same contract. A contract based on coercion is invalid.

    You were right when you said that rights are not absolute when they come into conflict with one another. My right to swing my fist, for example, ends where somebody else’s face begins. But which right not only conflicts with but, more importantly, trumps this guy’s right to free speech? There is no constitutional Right to Not Be Offended by Some Jerk, or a Right to Not Hear Naughty Language. The only real rights in question here are Terry Duncan’s, and they were violated.

  3. I'd just like to add that, in my experience, it's easy(and sometimes rewarding) to be both ironic AND a prick.

  4. There is no constitutional right to Not Get Punched In the Face, nor is there a constitutional right to Not To Have To Panic In A Theater If Somebody Yells Fire When There Isn't One... yet, we still have rules which limit the rights of others to punch us in the face or to yell "fire" in that ubiquitous crowded theater. In that light, rules do have a "moral and ethical weight," because it is these rules which seek to strike a balance between your rights and mine. Not all rules have been good ones, but a rule that seeks to find a balance between the rights of all involved is a rule that can be defended ethically, morally, and legally. Although the fine seems severe to me, the rule itself is an attempt to seek a balance between his rights and those of the driver and the other bus passengers.

    I'll agree that it IS a "free speech issue," because since it emerges from the guy's mouth, his profanity falls neatly under the extremely wide umbrella of "speech." But because his right to curse conversationally must be balanced against the other passengers' rights to enjoy a bus ride they paid for without listening to profane speech, his rights were not unduly violated. Your right to swing your arm ends where another's face begins, your right to smoke ends where my lungs begin, so I fail to see why your right to fill the air with profanity shouldn't end where some eight-year-old kid's ears begin.

  5. “I fail to see why your right to fill the air with profanity shouldn't end where some eight-year-old kid's ears begin.”

    I like this argument a lot better (for whatever that’s worth), perhaps because it uses my own awesome points against me in a devilishly cunning fashion.

    The reason that I don’t mind not having the right to punch people the face or yell “fire” in a non-burning theater—and why the I think it’s fine that the “right” to blow cigarette smoke into somebody else’s lungs is taking a beating—is that these actions cause, or run a high risk of causing, not only destruction of property but also (at least as importantly) personal pain, injury, or death.

    I’m not a big fan of swearing in front of somebody’s eight-year-old (although I swear around certain eleven-year-olds way too often), but the damage done by an overheard naughty word, if not actually zero, is an infinitesimally small fraction of the damage done by causing a panic in an enclosed space, or clocking somebody in the face, or even exhaling smoke that may end up damaging somebody’s lungs. And it’s far, far outweighed by the damage done by both curtailing free speech and legitimatizing the mindset that I have the right to tell you what you can’t say simply because what you say bothers me.

    Sure, bad language offends people. But almost everything that gets said will offend somebody. We could easily find a bus where half the passengers get offended when they overhear that Jesus is the answer, and the other half would get offended by overhearing that Jesus isn't the answer. Banning language that's patently offensive to a smaller part of the population shouldn't be any more acceptable than banning language that bothers most everybody.

  6. You forgot, "Cock, balls, whore." ~ Frank the Tank.

  7. Also, the bus couldn't very well post a sign that says, "By riding this bus, you agree not to be black." The issue is very similar here.

    There is some Con Law that needs to be explained here, but I'm too lazy to write. It relates strict scrutiny, which requires the the government has to have a "compelling interest" to limit speech. Yelling fire in crowd has valid safety concerns, yelling fuck likely does not.

  8. I'm sure that despite our differences, we can all agree that if a black woman seated in a Milwaukee County bus Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 were to shout "this crowded fucking bus is on fucking fire" while inhaling second-hand smoke, it would tear a hole in the universe.

  9. I agree to nothing!

  10. I agree that Prometheantimes did find it easy and frequently rewarding to be both ironic AND a prick. Moreso when he exercised his 2nd, rather than his 1st, amendment rights, however.

  11. "...but the damage done by an overheard naughty word, if not actually zero, is an infinitesimally small fraction of the damage done by causing a panic in an enclosed space..."

    Very true. But the "free speech" value quotient involved with coloring one's casual conversation with a few F-bombs is equally infinitesimal. His speech was not limited, but his language was. I do think there's a difference there.

    In short, I believe that there's rarely, if ever, a good reason to limit a person's right to free speech (or any of those rights)... but there are plenty of good reasons to put some restraints on WHERE those rights may tbe fully realized. Playboy can publish whatever they want, and I can read it, but not at a public library. I can pull my thing out to piss, but not in public. And I can curse up a blue streak, but not on the bus.