A fat cat, a mat and a lesson on free speech

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 13, 2000

The 6-year-old sat cross-legged on the sofa, a stack of newly purchased books beside him, and picked up &uot;The Fat Cat Sat on The Mat&uot; because, of course, it featured a cat on the cover.

&uot;Willl-mmmma … loves … her pet rat,&uot; he read aloud. &uot;She … c-c-aallls … the rat … ‘my … lit-ul … brat..?&uot;

As his face turned upward with a smirk, I just laughed. &uot;Well, maybe she thinks that’s a nice thing to say … let’s see what happens on the next page.&uot;

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And he began again.

&uot;The … rat … um, I can’t say that word,&uot; he said sheepishly as he pointed at the page.


&uot;Yeah, that’s a bad word, remember?&uot;

Of course I remembered. Hates, stupid, dumb, butt, booty and a dozen or so other really bad words are on &uot;the list&uot; at our house. And at least for now, he takes that list seriously.

&uot;OK, let’s just say ‘doesn’t like’ and keep reading.&uot;

Five lines later, it surfaced again.

&uot;The rat … um, there it is again …&uot; he said.

We muddled through page 8, agreeing to remember to say &uot;doesn’t like&uot; in place of that word we’re not supposed to say. But by page 18, we stumbled again.

&uot;You … th-th-think … I … am … uh-oh.&uot;


&uot;Yeah … look at that word,&uot; he said with a big grin as he pointed at the page.

There it was — &uot;stupid&uot; — another one of those bad words that all the grown-ups tell him not to say … in black ink. The parental instincts kicked in, and I was disgusted.

Here was a book written for children learning to read, with the words hate, stupid and brat used casually throughout. &uot;So why don’t we just throw it away,&uot; he asked. &uot;And tell the man who wrote it he has to sit in time out for using all those ugly words?&uot;

&uot;It’s not that simple …&uot;

Those words –&160;&uot;bad&uot; words to us — are simply letters strung together on a page. They aren’t &uot;ugly,&uot; exactly. It’s the message that they can convey –&160;a message of hate, of intolerance of contempt — that is ugly.

&uot;So why not just make those words against the law?&uot; he asked.

&uot;Well, there’s this little thing called the First Amendment …&uot;

The cornerstone of free speech, the First Amendment protects everything from newspapers to flag burning to inane books about rats who hate fat and stupid cats. That author’s right to pen that story and our right to read it, if we choose, are protected by that First Amendment.

&uot;So, you mean, it’s not against the law to say ugly words … the law says you can say them?&uot;

&uot;Well, yes, but …&uot; The lesson is that the way you use those words can be hurtful and mean. And each person, each child, has a choice in how he uses &uot;stupid,&uot; &uot;hates,&uot; &uot;brat&uot; and hundreds of other potentially hurtful or ugly words each day.

&uot;So that’s how ‘chicken-nugget head’ gets to be an ugly word?&uot; he asked, referring to his younger brother’s newest refrain.

&uot;You got it,&uot; I replied.

&uot;But what if they make those words against the law, what happens then?&uot;

&uot;Well, you censor people’s speech — and the government starts to decide what people can and can’t say, what people can read or write, even what you can watch on television or see at the movies …&uot;

&uot;Wait a minute, that’s sort of what you do, isn’t it?&uot; he asked slyly.

&uot;Exactly … I’m a parent; it’s part of the job description,&uot; I answered. &uot;I get to decide if you can read certain books or words — at least for now — and eventually, you’ll make those decisions yourself. The theory is if I do my job right now, you’ll make the right decisions later on.&uot;

&uot;Hmm,&uot; he pondered. &uot;So, I guess I just don’t have to read this book … it’s got all these ‘bad’ words in it.&uot;

&uot;Guess again,&uot; I said laughing as I turned to the next page. &uot;There are plenty of good words in here, too.&uot;

Stacy Graning is editor of The Democrat. She can be reached at 445-3539 or via e-mail at stacy.graning@natchezdemocrat.com.