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A victory against potty mouths

Decency won a victory in a Michigan courtroom last week. And, while the decision may not hold up under appeal, do not underestimate the message the jury sent, which is that vulgarity can be harmful to society.

Timothy Boomer, a 25-year-old factory worker near Detroit, was convicted of violating a 102-year-old law against swearing in front of women and children. The law may seem quaint and anachronistic in this age where coarse language is common in movies, on television and in literature. But consider that Boomer used the infamous "f-word" up to 70 times in rapid succession after falling from a canoe in the Rifle River last summer, and consider that children were present.Is it an anachronistic notion to want to protect women and children? This is a time of heightened sensitivity toward gender equality. Indeed, men have as much right to be offended by the mind-numbing crudity of profanity as do women. Children, however, deserve special care.

Through the ages, society has recognized the need to protect its young, as much as possible, from coarse and debasing behavior. Most likely, this comes from an inherent understanding that humans are better off if they learn to embrace and appreciate the beauties of life before having to confront the bad.

That is why a host of laws protect the young from alcohol consumption, tobacco use and many other behaviors. It is why the movie industry itself sets limits on the ages of customers allowed to see certain films.

Given the mindset of some modern jurists, the possibility exists the verdict may be overturned on appeal. The law, after more than a century on the books, may be found to violate the Constitution's First Amendment guarantee of free speech. We hope not.

The fundamental issue here is whether good taste and decency have lost their value over the past 102 years and whether profane language has become acceptable. If so, it would be a stunning defeat for civility.

Ultimately, the need to control one's tongue must be written in the heart in order to do any good. Writing it in the law books, however, can serve as an important reminder.