Free Speech isn’t free unless it is Equally Free

<warning – offensive (to some) language>

Idle dinner conversation at my house can be fairly entertaining (I have two teenagers). But tonight it was interesting.  The kids made spaghetti and meatballs (Derek’s favorite, and high on my list). 

As we were sitting down to eat my daughter (16) asked, “Is it illegal to swear in public?”.  I paused, and started to answer when my son (18) said, “It can be, depending on the context”.

My daughter then asked, “So how does that fit into free speech?”.

Very good question – especially since it’s not just about the context of the swearing that can determine whether it is “illegal” or not, it’s also dependant on where you are!

Yes, freedom of speech is guaranteed in this country – but the way that freedom is limited is not universal

In 1980 I got a $25 ticket for having glass on the beach in San Diego, California (a bottle of beer – I was sitting on the hood of my friend’s car, in the beach parking lot).  I told the cop, “You gotta be fucking joking?”.  I got another ticket for something like “public profanity” (was a long time ago, I don’t remember what it was exactly).  But I went to court over it and the judge agreed to throw out the “glass on the beach” charge – but not the profanity charge.  Sure, I was a stupid kid with a smart mouth – but I didn’t tell the cop to fuck off or anything – I just used the “f” word.

Fast forward to 1984 – living in Texas again.  Commuting three days a week between San Antonio and Corpus Christi (150 miles).  I had just gotten married and my job was in Corpus Christi, but my new wife was in San Antonio.  I had a 1983 Honda Goldwing motorcycle, and I was running VERY late to get to my job in Corpus.  I was riding VERY fast – 85-90 MPH (the speed limits were only 55 then).  I saw a cop going the other direction, and he turned his lights on – I knew I was caught.  Even though he had to go another mile north to get to a turn-around, I knew I couldn’t outrun his radio (even if I had a mind to).  I slowed down, pulled over, shut the engine off (but still had Boston rocking on the cassette player), lit a cigarette, and waited.

It took about 5 minutes for the cop to turn around and get back to me.  The cop approached and was an ass from the first moment.  I knew he wasn’t going to be pleasant.  He asked for my license and registration, proof of insurance – I gave him all of it and he started to lecture me about how fast I was going.  I said something like, “Look, I pulled over and waited for you, so don’t be a fucking dick.  Just write the ticket and let me get going”.

Guess what he did?  He got pissed!  Imagine 🙂  But he went to his car, ran my plates, wrote my ticket, and came back – he stabbed the ticket at me and said, “You’re lucky I can’t bust you for your smart mouth”.

So, in “conservative” Texas I get no ticket for asking a cop not to be a fucking dick, but in “liberal” California I get a ticket for using the fuck word in front of a cop – even if it wasn’t directed at him.  I didn’t call him a fucking joke.  I said, “You gotta be fucking joking”.  And it appears that where you live makes a difference as to whether swearing is committing a crime or not.  

So I am considering these inconsistencies as I mull over an answer to the original question – “Is it illegal to swear in public”.  And I gave fatherly advice – as much as I wish I could have said, “yes it is, as long as you aren’t talking about somebody” – I knew that wasn’t true.  What I said was, “You know, it’s not polite to swear, much less in public.  But it’s probably safer to assume that it’s also illegal – that way you avoid any trouble”.

That was six hours ago, and I still think I sent the wrong message.  I told my kids to NOT exercise their rights to free speech because it “might be considered wrong”.  Personally, I don’t let language bother me.  I don’t like it being used as every other word in a sentence, but if someone hits their thumb with a hammer and says, “oh, shit, I hit my thumb with a fucking hammer and it hurts like hell” – well, that just doesn’t phase me at all.  I’ve hit my thumb with a fucking hammer and I fucking cussed every cuss word I could think of (in several languages).  But I think telling my kids that “Free Speech” is limited geographically in this country was a mistake.  Free Speech should be a guarantee no matter where you are in this country.  It’s one of the last things we have that the government hasn’t figured out how to tax.  We need to protect it.


  1. Another tough topic, and the question is: are we going to be pragmatic or idealistic?
    The problem with ‘freedom of speech’ is that it is so poorly defined. It does NOT mean that you can say whatever you want. There are many exceptions to that notion, even covered by law: copyright, commercial speech (ads), hate speech, obscenity (Miller test!), security related issues (yelling ‘fire’ in a theatre, or saying ‘bomb’ at an airport). Because of the vagueness, yes, you put yourself at risk when you enter the fuzzy zone. And true, these boundaries need to be tested and challenged, especially in today’s society where the people’s freedom is actively under attack (by things like, for instance, the severely misnamed ‘Patriot’ act). But these challenges are best left to professionals (like the ACLU). As for advice to your kids, I think it was wise of you to point out their freedom of speech, and at the same time telling them to be pragmatic about it: when in doubt, do THAT what keeps you out of trouble. Freedom of speech is basically the right to express your opinion. No matter how bizarre your opinion, you usually can express it without swearing, offending, being hateful and putting other people in danger. I think that’s sounds advice!