The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why a lawmaker floated a bill to penalize use of a profane word (that rhymes with witch)


Massachusetts state Rep. Daniel Hunt has spent much of his week dodging rhetorical bullets. The nasty emails have poured in by the hundreds, he said. So have the nasty tweets and phone calls.

The Democrat from Boston became the target of viral outrage Monday after he introduced a bill in the state legislature that would penalize use of the word “bitch” in certain contexts. Under the proposed legislation, penalties would extend from fines of up to $200 to as much as six months in jail for repeat offenders.

The legislation, if it passed, would almost certainly be struck down by the courts for violating the First Amendment, which offers robust protections for even the most vulgar speech. And critics emerged in droves to let Hunt know it.

But Hunt said he was obligated to introduce the bill despite those challenges.

In Massachusetts, unlike other states, citizens have what’s known as a “right of free petition” allowing them to file proposed bills directly through their legislators. That’s exactly what happened in this case, Hunt said: A woman in his district came to him this year requesting legislation, and he, in turn, filed it on her behalf. He didn’t think he’d get such a harsh reaction, he said.

“It’s funny and ironic that the constitutional provision that allows this constituent a conduit to free speech and proposing her idea has been so viscerally pushed back on by people saying this is stifling free speech,” Hunt told The Washington Post. “It’s important whether you agree or disagree with the legislation being proposed that you honor the duty to represent your constituents and have their voices heard.”

The bill and the ensuing uproar reflect a broader debate simmering nationwide over what separates vulgarity, slurs and hate speech and how that language should be policed. College campuses have come under fire for attempting to crack down on language deemed offensive to certain groups, and President Trump and other conservatives have accused social media platforms of trying to censor right-leaning users.

Hunt declined to comment in detail on what prompted his constituent to reach out to him with the proposal about the word. But he said the woman told his office in March that she was troubled by numerous encounters in which “people were letting that term fly loosely.”

The legislation Hunt filed for her would add two sentences to part of the state’s General Laws dealing with disorderly conduct. “A person who uses the word ‘bitch’ directed at another person to accost, annoy, degrade or demean the other person shall be considered to be a disorderly person,” it reads. “A violation of this subsection may be reported by the person to whom the offensive language was directed at or by any witness to such incident.”

Backlash rolled in just as the bill was set to be taken up in committee this week. The Massachusetts Republican Party called on Twitter followers to speak up if they were “tired of @massdems dictating what you can say.” Conservative media piled on, too. “Their disdain for the Constitution is nothing short of appalling,” read a Washington Examiner column.

Legal experts also weighed in. Jim Manley, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, told the libertarian magazine Reason that it would be a “horrible unconstitutional miracle” for the bill to pass and said debating it would mean “wasting tremendous public resources.”

And then came the barrage of “colorful” messages, as Hunt put it, “calling me the B-word and the C-word.”

“It’s not a big deal. I’m a big boy,” Hunt said. “But days like this are a little discouraging in trying to fight the good fight.”

It’s not uncommon for lawmakers to file bills at the request of their constituents in Massachusetts, which is the only state that extends such a right to its citizens. The Massachusetts legislature outlines the process on its website, as does the State Library of Massachusetts and the state bar association.

Despite all the commotion online, when Hunt’s bill came up in committee Tuesday, no one testified, he said. It’s unclear whether the committee will recommend passing it, killing it or order that it be studied (typically a discreet way of letting a bill die).

Whatever the case, Hunt said, it was important to let the bill move through the process.

“Once you start picking and choosing, it eats away at the original intent of the framers, which is to give access to government to all of our citizens,” he said. “In general, having people involved and trying to understand government is a good thing.”