Louisiana passes a law requiring schoolchildren to address their teachers as "sir" or "ma'am" or using courtesy titles with their surnames. Michigan prosecutes a young man for bursting into profanity when his canoe capsized and he fell in the river.

You know where all this is going, don't you?

At least Miss Manners trusts that you have an idea of where this particular argument is going.

Are we to surrender our freedom of speech? What about our constitutional rights? Do these hypocrites claim that they always speak politely? Could they possibly pick anything more trivial? Can't they find any real criminals to worry about?

But here the subject is being raised by your own Miss Manners, and nobody cares more about civility than she does. She really does believe that schoolchildren should be required to address their teachers respectfully. She really does believe that citizens should be required to keep a civil tongue in their heads.

So maybe it's that other argument:

Throw them out of school! Lock 'em up! That'll teach 'em respect. People who abuse their rights don't deserve to have any. Nobody knows how to behave nowadays, and someone's got to show them they can't get away with it.

Miss Manners doesn't care any better for that line of reasoning, if one may call it that. Both sides are rude and both wrongly assume that the only choices are tolerating bad behavior or passing laws against it.

Doesn't anybody remember (no, of course not) when, 20 years ago, Miss Manners started warning that tossing aside the ancient and noble practice of etiquette would ultimately result in less freedom, not more?

It didn't look that way to those who threw off the restraints of etiquette, not only merrily but righteously. Why should children respect their elders if their elders had not proved to them that they were worthy of respect? Why should self-expression be stifled just because it might be offensive--surely not the problem of those who expressed their feelings forthrightly, but of the uptight people who professed themselves offended?

But no, it seems that everyone is offended by rudeness, especially those who indulge in it and then defend that as retaliation. The problem is basic to human society: People want to be free to do what they want to do, but they want other people not to be free to do things that annoy them, or worse.

To achieve both, a compromise is necessary. The ideal one has only restrictions that are really necessary to keep serious damage from being done. Thus we have general agreement about the rule of law, however much people argue about the justice of particular laws and how they are applied.

Etiquette, in contrast, seems dispensable, since the transgressions it restrains are not lethal. Miss Manners couldn't find anyone else to help defend it until it fell into disuse. Only then was it apparent that etiquette's restraint of trivially annoying behavior and its de-escalation of conflicts through apologies make it crucial to civilized life.

However, it is harder to reinstate the habit of politeness than it was to laugh it out of town. Retaining the idea of living by law alone, society is starting to give etiquette legal powers.

That is not what Miss Manners wants. When we last tried it, in Puritan America, where swearing and other forms of disrespectful speech were illegal, it was not a noticeable success.

Schools should be able to promulgate deportment rules without the law's either ensuring enforcement or mounting challenges. Profanity should be banned from public spaces, not by law but by society's ceasing to glamorize it, and instead treating it as a deplorable lapse (saved for exactly such occasions as tumbling into a river) for which apologies are necessary.

Etiquette is better at handling such matters than the mighty and clumsy legal system, but it does expect people to restrict their own freedom. That should be the method of choice for all freedom-loving people.

Dear Miss Manners:

I am not a fan of the trendy wines: chardonnay or white zinfandel. I prefer Pinot Grigio, so when I am invited to dinner I always bring a bottle. But it is not always served. Would I be rude in requesting my wine?

Can you think of a polite way to say, "Your wine may be good enough for you and your other guests, but I need something better--which is why I brought that bottle that you seem to think was intended as a present for you"?

Neither can Miss Manners. There is, however, a polite phrase you may use whenever you don't like what your hosts are serving, and it is, "No, thank you."

1999, Judith Martin