You’re out for a family canoe trip. You have your two young children with you. You come around a bend, and there, in the water, is a soaking wet man who has just fallen out of his canoe. He is screaming mad. He is cursing. He uses the F-word, and he uses it again and again. You paddle past quickly, trying to cover your children’s ears.

You’re upset. You worry for your kids.

But do you have a lawsuit?

That, in a nutshell, was the dilemma facing a jury last week in the small town of Standish, where the belligerent man, 25-year-old Timothy Boomer, was charged with breaking a 102-year-old law that forbids cursing in front of children.

He was convicted of the misdemeanor, and now faces a possible 90 days in jail and a $100 fine.

Naturally, in this human interest-equals-hype environment, the case has attracted national attention. And while the idea of enforcing an outdated law from the 1800s usually would bring a chorus of “oh, come on” — because this one involves children, decency and decaying morality, a lot of people are jumping on the bandwagon.

To which I must respectfully say:

The law is not your daddy.

The flip side of the law

Now, I certainly understand those who would like to kick Mr. Boomer’s butt into the slammer. These are people who are sick of going to the movies or the ballpark and hearing loud profanities yelled by those around them. These are people who are sick of getting the finger from angry motorists, sick of hearing strangers bark into cell phones, sick of getting lip from an annoyed salesclerk or being bombarded with filthy talk on the radio and TV.

Then along comes Boomer on the river, an annoying everyday situation wrapped in a once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity. Because a deputy happened to be on the Rifle River that day, and because he happened to know of this 102-year-old law, there is a chance to send a message to all these creeps who are ruining the world for the rest of us.

I sympathize. I really do.

But I’m not sure going back to the 1800s is the answer.

For one thing, this same law that forbids cursing in front of children also forbids cursing in front of a woman. The judge in this case agreed to strike that part, perhaps because, if he enforced it, he’d have to arrest half the men in town.

But what are we saying by that? That we know the law is out of date, but we still want to use part of it for our purposes?

Secondly, if you enforce a law about cursing in front of children, does that mean you must arrest every TV set and radio programmer that utters the A-word, the B-word or the P-word? Do we shut down any music store that plays rap over the speakers? And at what age does a child stop being a child? 5? 10? 15? Aren’t there 15-year-olds who curse a lot worse than adults?

And while we’re at it, which word constitutes cursing? If Boomer had been yelling “Damn!” instead of the F-word, would he still have broken the law?

The not-so-common good

Now, we also should recognize that while civil rights activists are all over this case — free speech, freedom of expression, etc. — this may be more about a small town that gets overrun by drunken tourists every summer than anything else. The reason the deputy was on the river that day was not to police language, but to catch revelers who drink and party at the expense of other more peaceable river-goers. Obviously, the town is fed up.

And that is the core of this whole case. The town is fed up. Families are fed up. We are all fed up. We want a simpler, cleaner, more civil world, a world without belligerent drunks and cursing neighbors.

“It’s a common decency thing,” said Tammy Smith, the mother of the children.

Exactly. But the key word is “common.” What is common? If you go by “South Park” common broadcasts — it’s one thing. If you go by churches and synagogues — common gathering places — it’s another.

A faster answer may be in limiting alcohol consumption, which is often behind the behavior that folks in Standish decry. As for civility, well, that has to be taught — by parents, schools, religious institutions — and it has to be learned.

Boomer should apologize, which he has offered to do. But the law is not your daddy. Remember, harking back to the 1800s also means honoring a time when women’s rights to vote and minorities’ rights to be treated equally were regularly denied. It’s not old laws we need. It’s a new sense of responsibility.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 1-313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays and “Monday Sports Albom” 6:30-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR-AM (760).

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