If you ever find yourself in a bar in St. Charles, you’d better watch your mouth. Despite a recent study touting the potential benefits of cursing, the Post-Dispatch reports that St. Charles’ city government may ban "indecent, profane or obscene language, songs, entertainment, and literature" from the town’s drinking establishments.
For beginners, such a law would be a flagrant violation of constitutional principles. Everybody knows that the First Amendment protects the freedom of speech, even when some might find that speech offensive. But even more importantly, Article I, section 8, of the Missouri Constitution declares that "every person shall be free to say, write or publish, or otherwise communicate whatever he will on any subject[.]" Missouri’s free speech protections are also guaranteed to apply to all forms of communication, whether spoken, sung, danced, filmed, or written.
Our nation’s history is littered with official attempts to stifle words, books, songs, and ideas that many at the time considered "wrong," "naughty," or "immoral." At one point, James Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses, was banned from the United States as "obscene." It is now widely regarded as one of the most important literary works in the English language. As the Supreme Court of the United States pointed out in Cohen v. California, "one man’s vulgarity is another man’s lyric," an observation that led the court to reject "the facile assumption that one can forbid particular words without also
running a substantial risk of suppressing ideas in the process."
St. Charles’ consideration of this "cussin’ ban" is the perfect example of why these constitutional protections are so necessary. The Founders recognized that, given the opportunity, people in power will eventually try to limit words, books, expressions, and ideas that they disfavor. If we, as citizens, allow one group the power to silence those who disagree with them, or whose thoughts and opinions may seem to be distasteful, we sacrifice one of the most important, defining elements of a free society.