A small New Jersey town conceded a victory for freedom of speech this week.
If only the outcome were equally satisfying for the content of that speech.
Roselle Park, New Jersey, issued a violation notice to homeowner Patricia Dilascio and her daughter, Andrea Dick, after Dick hung several banners on their front fence that used the f-word to express their dislike for President Joe Biden.
The borough said this violated an ordinance prohibiting the display of obscene material, noting that among other things the home sits near an elementary school.
Municipal Court Judge Gary Bundy upheld the ordinance and ordered Dick to remove three signs that included the f-word. If she failed to do so, she could be subject to a daily fine of $250.
The American Civil Liberties Union joined the family in a planned appeal to Superior Court, arguing that this was a clear-cut case of protected speech.
“The First Amendment exists specifically to make sure people can express strong opinions without fear of punishment by the government,” ACLU-NJ executive director Arnol Sinha told the Star-Ledger.
The borough then announced it was withdrawing the charges, meaning the signs can remain.
Constitutional rights cases like this often annoy civilians, because most people would prefer that third graders, or anyone else for that matter, not have four-letter words rammed in their faces.
As Sinha says, however, the point of the First Amendment is to protect all speech, not just speech we like.
So it’s a good day for free speech.
It’s just too bad it wasn’t a better day for the quality of speech.
We know that what a person says usually tells you way more about the person who is speaking than the person or people being spoken to.
Plastering the f-word on your fence, whether it’s nominally directed at Joe Biden or anyone else, is pretty much 100% about the plasterer.
It doesn’t make passersby think, “Hmmm, I have some issues with Biden’s infrastructure bill.” It makes them think, “Wow, look at that. Someone put the f-word on their fence.”
Its message is “Look at what I did! Look at me!”
I’m guessing that Ms. Dick thinks we’re beyond dialogue or conversation, that the other side has gone so far they deserve only an angry dismissal for anything they might have to say or offer.
As for the obscenity itself, I’d make the further guess that Ms. Dick would say the other side started it, that the other side has been trashing Donald Trump in vile terms for years.
It’s a defense totally familiar to anyone who has ever had contact with a 6-year-old. We learn young to yell “He started it!” or “She started it!” as a deflection from our own behavior. The tactic has endured through the ages for the simple reason that to varying extents it’s usually true.
Almost no one is the first to do or say something offensive, extreme or amoral. Someone always did it before, and someone else before them. Nations have built their foundations on the premise that someone else “started it,” perhaps hundreds or thousands of years before.
The blame arrow swings back and forth as surely as the sun rises in the East and sets in the West.
And then there’s at least one other defense, which is that there’s no point in trying to have a conversation because the other side never listens.
Here again, that’s too often true.
But there’s also this. For all the talk of polarization and gridlock and great divides, talk that’s been part of human complaining since the cave dwellers, the dirty little secret is that a whole lot of people do talk to each other, even people with whom they disagree.
It’s not only theoretically possible, it’s practiced. Not as often as we might all like, or with the results we might all wish, but it’s the reason we’re a different and better country now than we were 100 years ago, or 50 years ago. We talk, we compromise, we accommodate. Slowly and reluctantly, we adjust. Otherwise we’d still have “Colored” water fountains, women would be legally banned from having their own credit cards and DDT would have poisoned our national bird, the Bald Eagle, into extinction.
The corrosive part of splashing the f-word in front of third graders isn’t that kids haven’t seen and heard it before — let’s get real here — but that it reinforces the unspoken notion this is how adults talk to each other, by hurling crude insults that smugly suggest nothing else can or needs to be said.
It’s hard to sit down, talk something over and find common ground with people who see the world in fundamentally different ways. It’s easy to just say “f-them” and exchange high-fives with an amen chorus over social media.
Thing is, though, the people who do the hard work are the ones who get things done.
The others leave a legacy of posting a dirty word on their front fence.
Imagine, instead of saying “He started it!”, you were the one who said that in your own corner of the world, “I stopped it.”