Taber's anti-swearing bylaw fits tradition of behaviour-busting

The Alberta town of Taber's attempts to curb public swearing and spitting follow a long tradition of municipal meddling with bad behaviour. But some say the laws themselves may trigger obscene reactions.

Other places have tried to outlaw profanity, but they've earned an ugly earful from protesters

It may sound 'corny,' but old-fashioned values like no swearing, no spitting and no yelling rule the day in Taber, Alta. (CBC)

The year was 1994. The location, Whistler, B.C. 

And in a scenario now familiar to the residents of Taber, Alta., the air was filled with obscenity and the streets awash in spit.​

City council decided to act.

So, nearly 20 years after Whistler passed its ground-breaking anti-nuisance bylaw, is it truly possibly an entire generation has grown up in Canada's premier ski resort without ever hearing a swear word uttered in public?

"Probably not," admits former mayor Hugh O'Reilly.

Regulating rudeness

Whistler fought its own battle with incivility long before Alberta's corn capital drew jeers for trying to crack down on public swearing, spitting and yelling.

O'Reilly — who now works as a Realtor in Hawaii — was a councillor at the time. He later served as mayor. 

He recalls the publicity surrounding Whistler's anti-swearing bylaw, but says succeeding councils rarely put the rules to use.

"Bylaws should really probably maintain a very basic role, which is parking, dog enforcement, some of the smaller items," he says.

"The things that happened in the village, at night, that really should remain in the purview of the RCMP."

Taber Mayor Henk De Vlieger​ says his council is being unfairly mocked for the kind of anti-profanity bylaw passed by many other municipalities. (CBC)

Henk De Vlieger​, the mayor of Taber, claims his council has been unfairly targeted for its Community Standards Bylaw, when similar legislation exists in towns like Whistler and Red Deer.

Even Ottawa's city council has considered a curb on "insulting," "indecent" or "boisterous" language.

Fiddlesticks vs. #$*&!

"It is a piece of what for many decades and across many jurisdictions, cities try to do," says UBC law professor Margot Young.

"The city is an important context for the creation and construction of the environment in which we live. Eighty per cent of Canadians live in cities, and so a concern about that social environment is exactly on the agenda for cities — because that's where we all are."

Young says the issue gets sticky when the definition of a nuisance comes with a moral judgment: is yelling "Fiddlesticks" in Taber just as illegal as yelling its four-letter equivalent? 

"If it's just about the noise level, it's clear that municipalities get to regulate noise level," she says. 

"But if it's about the fact that you can't say the s-word even in a quiet voice let alone in a loud voice, then it starts to look like are you regulating ethics and morality, and is that actually within the domain of the law-making jurisdiction of cities."

Swearing in the rain

Mimi Duphily still remembers the ugly protest prompted by her anti-profanity bylaw.

The 66-year-old still heads the beautification committee for the Massachusetts town of Middleborough.

Besieged by packs of swearing youth in 2012, the community sought to introduce a $20 fine for public obscenity.

National and international media caught wind of the story and — as in Taber — Middleborough was cast as a laughingstock.

Duphily says a group of protesters travelled from Virginia to stand for hours in front of city hall, in the rain, swearing a blue streak.

"It was pouring cats and dogs, and the police said, 'We're not even going to go near them, they can just stand there and swear,' and they eventually went home," she says.

Taber's swearing advocates have called on Kevin Bacon to revive his 1984 Footloose character to save them from an anti-profanity bylaw. (Paramount Pictures/Associated Press)

"It's so classless, it's so nasty. It doesn't show what you want to project as the image of your town. I want my town to be a pleasant, lovely place to live in, and I don't want someone to be afraid to walk in a store because a group of kids are swearing."

In the end, Middleborough had to back off the law because it infringed on the constitutional right to free speech. Similar arguments have been made in Canada with regard to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Are you listening Kevin Bacon?

But Duphily says raising the issue had the desired effect.

She paints kind of an alternate ending to Footloose.

In the 1984 movie, a young rebel teaches an uptight town to value free expression. In Duphily's Middleborough, old people learned to stand up for themselves, while young people learned to listen.

"It did make a big difference," she says. "People realized we don't have to be putting up with this."

It turns out it doesn't take Kevin Bacon to save a village.

Organizational behaviour expert Daniel Skarlicki says anti-profanity bylaws arise from what is a genuine irritant for people, but they're rarely as effective as peer pressure.

"These kinds of events can trigger irrational behaviour in people," says Skarlicki, who teaches at the Sauder School of Business.

"When we try to regulate other people's behaviour in terms of rules and regulations it never works as well as consulting and trying to engage with each other instead."

But who wants to make a musical about that?

About the Author

Jason Proctor


Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.


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