Loopy coverage says more about media than Legislature

Citizen bill to ban ‘bitch’ utterance gets undue attention

THE STORYLINE OF loopy Massachusetts liberals going PC-crazy was apparently too good for right-leaning national outlets to resist. But they’re hardly alone, as mainstream Massachusetts media also decided to turn a nothing-burger into a jaw-dropping example of layabout lawmakers frittering away their time on absurd efforts to police free speech. 

The subject: A bill filed by state Rep. Dan Hunt that would outlaw calling someone a “bitch.” It was on the docket, along with scores of bills, for a hearing Tuesday. A middle school civics class might see a First Amendment problem with the proposal, which makes it seems like a pretty outrageous move for an elected state legislator, a law school graduate at that. 

But it turns out there’s a great deal less to the story than meets the eye.

The Dorchester Democrat was merely following traditions of the time-honored Massachusetts “right of free petition,” which allows citizens to file bills for the Legislature to consider. Such measures need a lawmaker to make the official filing, something most legislators do routinely for any bill a constituent asks them to submit. It doesn’t indicate the lawmaker’s support for the bill, and nearly all such measures end up in the legislative discard pile along with the overwhelming majority of the thousands of bills filed each session. 

But none of that has stopped a mini frenzy of overwrought coverage questioning what kind of brain-addling additive gets mixed into the State House water supply. 

While acknowledging the bill would never become law, Katherine Timpf writes for National Review, “I still find myself disturbed by the fact that it was even discussed in the legislature in the first place. After all, this means that the public servants in Massachusetts actually have so little knowledge of the Constitution (which the taxpayers are paying them to protect) that they spent their (taxpayer-funded) time earnestly considering it.”

Except there was actually no real time spent “earnestly considering” the bill.

“Massachusetts leftists want to throw you in jail for saying ‘bitch,’” screams the headline over a Washington Examiner column. 

The Massachusetts Republican Party has had a field day pummeling Hunt on social media. Hunt declined to identify the constituent who asked him to file the bill. But conservative columnist Michael Graham writes that it was a Dorchester human services worker named Takiyah White.

Following up on a Boston.com piece, both the Boston Globe and Boston Herald have run stories on the issue.  

Five years ago, David Bernstein wrote for Boston Magazine about the absurdity of coverage of a similar no-chance-of-passing bill filed on behalf of a constituent. Republican state Sen. Richard Ross had filed a measure that would have prohibited someone going through a divorce from having sex in their own home (presumably with someone other than the spouse from whom they are estranged).  

There’s plenty to knock the Legislature over without stirring up something out of nothing. There are also real assaults on free speech to be fought against.

Massachusetts is one of the few states that allows for citizen-initiated bills, a function of “its nearly 400-year devotion to self-governance, populist energy, and participatory citizenship,” Bernstein wrote in his piece, which was headlined, “The Story of a Non-Story: How a bunch of media outlets got their coverage of an obscure Massachusetts bill really, really wrong.”

Bernstein reminded Twitter followers this week of his Boston Magazine piece ripping  Boston.com and other outlets over the non-story of the 2014 bill. This time, though, instead of wagging a finger, BoMag joins the fray with a tongue-in-cheek take on the issue that imagines the horribleness of a world with the proposed word ban.