October 18, 2021

The politics of profanity

Vulgar signs appearing locally

There’s no questioning the depth of feeling on the sign: “Flush the **** Nov. 3rd.”

The “****” rhymes with third, but with a hard “T” sound.

It’s not alone. That sign on North Main Street, and other places, in Cortland is joined by others, some more strident and less refined. Around Central New York — and around the nation — you’ll find any number of signs with, shall we say, more colorful metaphors than one might find in other election years— both supporting and opposing President Donald Trump.

Mark Leonard, a former city alderman who lives on North Main Street, said he does not see his sign, featuring Trump’s signature sweeping hair, as particularly offensive.

“I don’t get mad at anyone else’s sign, as long as they are not offensive,” he said. “If people are offended by this, too bad.”

Leonard said he draws the line at obscenities. Not all of them do.

The signs reveal a level of tension in the political scene as a recession piles on a pandemic, which piles on an already controversial president and the campaign to re-elect, or oust, him.

“This year it’s higher than most years,” said Cortland Mayor Brian Tobin. “It’s mostly because of COVID and part of it is people feel very strongly about our current federal leadership — one way or another.”

It’s hard to argue against vulgarity on political lawn signs because of freedom of speech in the First Amendment, said town of Homer Supervisor Fred Forbes. Constitutional law heavily restricts a government’s ability to regulate the content of a lawn sign.

“If it’s your lawn, you can regulate it,” he said. “It’s tough to question signs like that since it’s so close to the election.”

“I may not agree with it, but I’ll defend your right to say it,” said Tim Perfetti, chairman for the Cortland County Democratic Committee.

Connie White, chairwoman for the Cortland County Republic Committee, said she was “disgusted and people who choose to express their political views in that way should be ashamed of themselves.”

“It’s a shame we can’t express ourselves through honor and respect and the candidate we wish to support,” she said. “You don’t want to talk bad about an opponent, you want to talk up the candidate you support.”

Perfetti, who travels often for his job, said he’s seen vulgar and profane signs in other communities similar to what one can find in Cortland. He’s heard the comments, too.

“It’s always been here,” he said. “Cortland is like other communities in this sense. Some people see it as a higher moral cause when they show vulgarity in their political views.”

Still, if the signs can’t be regulated, they can be reconsidered, Tobin said.

“We need to think about what we do as role models,” he said. “We need people to be considerate of others, especially our children. A good rule of thumb is if it’s not appropriate for kids, don’t put it out there.”

Perfetti said he thinks the vulgar signs won’t influence who people will vote for.

“I’m suspicious of anybody that says they’re undecided on who to vote for,” he said. “I also don’t think those signs tell people ‘If I have to vote, I guess I have to vote.’”

City Editor Kevin Conlon contributed to this report.