In the last 24 hours, Massachusetts state Rep. Dan Hunt has received about a thousand profanity-laced emails, he says — a strong response to a bill bearing his name that would penalize use of the “b-word” across the state.
Many contained the word in question — and some others.
“There’s a lot of people from around Massachusetts and a lot from around the country,” Hunt told Boston.com Wednesday, pointing to the widespread press coverage the proposal generated as it went before a committee Tuesday.
The bill, “An act regarding the use of offensive words,” would impose a fine of up to $200 or, potentially, jail time of up to six months for “a person who uses the word ‘bitch’ directed at another person to accost, annoy, degrade or demean the other person.”
Alleged violations could be reported by either the person the word was directed at or by witnesses.
The Boston Democrat said the bill was brought to him by one of his constituents and he filed it under the citizens’ right to free petition — a mechanism in state law that allows the public to file bills in the Legislature.
Hunt said that in the filing process, however, he did not indicate that the proposal was by citizen petition, noting that “when you do that it kind of exposes the person or the individual to the scrutiny of the media and general public.”
“I didn’t give it much thought in retrospect,” said Hunt. “I’m glad we didn’t because the individual would (have) thousands of people … calling her… as opposed to me, whose job it is to represent constituents.”
He did not say whether he personally supported the bill.
The proposal sparked intense discussion online, with critics saying such a law would be in clear violation of the First Amendment.
On Twitter, Hunt posted a statement Tuesday evening explaining how the bill was filed.
“One of the responsibilities of all Representatives is to serve as a conduit for direct petitions from our constituents to the General Court,” the statement says. “It’s a long-held tradition that gives every Massachusetts resident a voice inside the halls of the State House and a chance to raise their personal interests before the Legislature. While this specific instance may amuse some and alarm others, it remains (an) important process for self-representation.”
— Dan Hunt (@RepDanHunt) October 22, 2019
Massachusetts is the only state in the country that allows for the citizens’ right to free petition under Article 19 of the commonwealth’s constitution. It’s a practice that dates back to 1641, according to the State Library.
“It’s very routine and common, and so people are pushing back on the fact the underlying bill is unconstitutional to freedom of speech, but the intent of the framers for Article 19 was for individual constituents to have the right for their voice to be heard through their Legislature,” he said Wednesday.
And so Hunt sees a civics lesson to be learned from the situation.
He pointed to how lawmakers last year passed a law to expand civics education in public schools, including a requirement for students to complete a project to analyze issues and different perspectives.
“Now the adults are getting one, I guess,” he said.