By P. Getty
On several occasions now, I’ve reported on some of the weird laws and customs I’ve witnessed since moving to Pennsylvania from Oregon. Generally, these reports have touched on the unnecessary restriction of alcohol sales (no wine in grocery stores, etc). Since then, an even more bizarre practice of Pennsylvania law enforcement agencies has come to my attention. Apparently, Pennsylvania cops across the state have been ticketing people with fines and potential jail time for “potty” language or otherwise using obscene gestures. Can you believe this? I’ve seen Lockup on MSNBC. I cannot imagine being put in the slammer with those animals over a few choice turns of phrase.
Luckily, as part of a federal free-speech lawsuit settlement, Pennsylvania law enforcement agents have agreed to indefinitely suspend ticketing people for using profanity in all its forms. The decision came in response to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of a Pennsylvania woman who was cited after giving her un-censored views to an inconsiderate motorcyclist. When reporting the incident in intimate details to the police, rather than confronting the motorcyclist, the officer slapped the women with a $300 fine carrying with it a possible 90-day incarceration sentence. Over 700 similar citations where issued across the state in the span of a year. Since the courts decision, however, no longer will this brutality stand, man!
Personally, as a devoted Carlinist and moral relativist, I believe this decision marks a win for the sane. The fact that Pennsylvania’s “best and brightest” got away with punishing colorful-language users as a means of enforcing some moral belief system is sickening and offensive. Even now I want to express my offense with a string of expletive adjectives. While my “faith” allows me to use all manner of words, phrases and gestures to express myself, academic register and this blog does not, as has recently come to my attention.
It’s also probably true that like many of the good citizens of Pennsylvania, in the past I might have used a few lewd words or, perhaps, expressed myself with vulgar means, which may not live up to the moral standards of the “best and brightest.” Though I stand by my previous remarks and believe in public free speech, I also believe that employers have the right to request that their associates (in this case volunteers) practice within reasonable guidelines of refinement.
In addition to this belief, and my attempt to be a “swell guy” and “play nice” with others, my willingness to compromise and go along with the request to curtail my repertoire of coarse words is also rooted in classic research by Bostrom, Baseheart and Rossiter (1973) who examined the effects of profanity in persuasive communication. Interestingly, they found that people who used profanity where no better at persuading listeners than those who didn’t. On the other hand, they were no worse. Still, those who do use profanity where seen as less credible. Weird right?
As of now, I have been unable to find a follow-up to this study to see if these conclusions have changed in the last 38 years (I would be willing to guess that they have in some respects). Nevertheless, I will assume the findings of this study represent the state-of-the-art conclusion about profanity: naughty language equals diminished credibility. So in the spirit of cooperation with my editor and a desire to have a credible ethos, I will “clean up my act” and try really, really hard not to offend our academic benefactors and reasonable readers with bawdy language, even when my emotions run high. Instead, hopefully I can figure out clever euphemisms to express my cheeky sense of humor. Until then, I will save my profanities for Pennsylvania law-enforcement officers. As the law dictates, they have to take it–even if they don’t like it–while you do not.