Monday, February 28, 2011

Logan Jenkins: In a council meeting, what language is too foul? It's a fair question

I can't believe that District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis is getting involved in this case. Treasonous comments are okay, apparently, but don't say "wussies" with a "p".

Logan Jenkins: In a council meeting, what language is too foul? It's a fair question
By Logan Jenkins
February 28, 2011

“Any person making impertinent and slanderous remarks or who becomes boisterous while addressing the council shall be removed from the room.”

So declares the Carlsbad Municipal Code.

On Aug. 24, that genteel standard of decorum was put to a double test.

During the public-comment period, Neil Turner, a retired Army captain and member of the Minutemen, challenged the council to either present charges to the Grand Jury or “become complicit” in treason.

Throughout his three-minute address, Turner was calm, dignified, measured. Mayor Bud Lewis and council listened impassively to a gentleman accusing the president of breaking into and entering the White House. Turner implored the council to heed Lincoln’s words: “To sin by silence, when they should protest, makes cowards of men.”

In light of the irrefutable facts — President Obama was born in Hawaii; the so-called “birthers” are conspiracy fabulists — one can imagine a hotheaded, patriotic mayor ordering the removal of Turner from the chamber.

No need to worry. Turner’s right of free, even if wing-nut, speech was exercised despite his slanderous — and arguably seditious — message. (He called upon members of the armed forces to resist the “unlawful” commander in chief’s orders.)

Next up to the lectern was Richard Shapiro, a homeless 53-year-old man who believes it’s his mission to spread the raw word that the justice system is corrupt from top to bottom. While he concedes his public diatribes are “an exercise in futility,” Shapiro soldiers on. He’s spoken “a thousand times” before councils from the Bay Area to San Diego, he told me.

The problem is, Shapiro feels the need to use rough language in settings where decorum is highly valued.

On Aug. 24, Shapiro began his address by picking up on Turner’s point about silence. Most people, Shapiro said, are moral cowards, though he used an off-color word that’s often sanitized as “wussies.”

Mayor Lewis, who had been through this R-rated movie before, immediately ordered two officers to grab the speaker. As he was being led away, Shapiro asked off-camera if he could say “heck” or “darn.” (In a subsequent meeting, Shapiro got a rise out of Lewis when he articulated the word “pusillanimous,” a $10 word for cowardly.)

Shapiro will be tried in April for three Carlsbad violations, culminating in the Aug. 24 blowup. Somewhat surprisingly, the District Attorney’s Office is prosecuting the infraction-level case, an indication, one gathers, of the DA’s deep commitment to decorum.

I grant you, Shapiro is a street-wise provocateur, a gloating pain in the gluteus maximus, a homeless man’s George Carlin.

But in my etiquette book, it’s un-American to muzzle him, especially when more loathsome, if smoother, speech slides through like rancid butter.

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