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That damn badword law

BY KARYL WALKER Online news editor walkrk@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, September 03, 2012 | 2:05 PM    

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LAST Saturday a policeman fatally shot a heavily pregnant Kayann Lamont and injured her sister after the woman was heard mouthing a string of choice Jamaican 'cloths' in Yallahs, St Thomas. Several sectors of society have expressed rage.

The policeman accused of the murder and shooting has been jailed but the tragic event is still fresh in the minds of many Jamaicans.

Lamont's untimely death has brought into focus the relevance of the law governing indecent language.

Under section 9C of The Town and Communities Act any person who shall make on any fence, wall or other building, any obscene figure, drawing, painting, or representation, or sing any profane, indecent, or obscene song or ballad, or write or draw any indecent or obscene word, figure, or representation, or use any profane, indecent or obscene language publicly can be subject to a fine not exceeding $1,500 or to imprisonment with or without hard labour, for a period not exceeding thirty days.

While the fine is now $1,500, 'bad words' were once described as 40 shilling words as that was the fine for using them under the rule of the colonial master.

Is it that the law was implemented to curtail the use of certain slang words used by people of African descent, which were not fully understood by the former slave owners?

The law was drafted in 1834 and was last amended in 1997 and does not specify which words or phrases are deemed to be obscene, profane or indecent but instead leaves the police to make that determination.

It was not clear what choice words Lamont used while describing to a friend, her ordeal of being robbed of her cell phone and money that was to be used to purchase back to school supplies.

But her rants drew the attention of the cop who ended up taking her life.

That section of the act which speaks to indecent language is irrelevant, archaic and clearly a hangover from our colonial past.

Pussyfooting is a legitimate word and we all know that the pussy willow is a tree. So why should any person be carted off to jail for adding a bit of fabric to a word that is used to describe a cat?

Blood runs through human veins and we use cloth for a wide variety of purposes so what is the sense charging someone for combining two legitimate words?

Another section of the act that is clearly nonsensical is one that deals with disturbing religious worship.

The law states that any person "who shall willfully disturb any meeting or assembly, or any congregation assembled for religious worship, or for any religious service or rite in any burial ground, or disturb or molest any person thereat, shall be guilty of an offense and shall be liable to a penalty not exceeding four dollars".

Four dollars?

There are too many laws on our books that are clearly out of date and serve no purpose in the building process of modern Jamaica. After 50 years of independence we should be able to at least get some things right.

Our legislators need to take a serious look at some of our outdated laws and move post haste to erase them from the law books. 

One can't help thinking that if there wasn't an outdated law like the one which speaks to indecent language, Kayann Lamont might not have lost her life and the cop accused of shooting her would not be behind bars.

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