Spitting in America - Does Law Enforcement Work?
Women Take Action against Spittle
Ever since the tuberculosis bacterium and its transmission modes were identified in the late 1800s, municipalities across the country have struggled with enacting and enforcing effective laws against spitting. Unlike anti-smoking laws, which are well-enforced, anti-spitting laws are not, even though spitting has been and is known to put the public’s health at risk.
Despite energetic public health education and awareness campaigns that were mounted across the country from the late 1800s right through the 1950s, and despite the many laws against spitting which ensued, spittle-strewn streets are still commonplace in our American towns and cities, from sea to shining sea.
Why Is It Difficult To Enforce Laws Against Spitting?
As early as 1886, medical doctors knew that laws against spitting would be ineffective, even though it was generally acknowledged that tuberculosis could be transmitted through sputum. From The Medical and Surgical Reporter, a Philadelphia medical journal of the time, comes this reasoned explanation:
A law against spitting must not aim higher than the average sentiment of the policeman, the police court judge, the janitor, conductor or care-taker, upon whom its enforcement must depend. It must not too much curtail the highly prized “personal liberty” of the two-legged swine, against whom it is directed…
In other words, those who would enforce the law were already guilty of breaking it and would have no intention of mending their ways.
The full article is fascinating. If you'd like to read it, click here, enter the word spitting in the search box, then select the link to page 563.
An Anti-Spitting Sign of the Times
New Yorkers Document Their Spitting Troubles
This same societal ambivalence was noted by J.M. in his eloquent letter to The New York Times in 1901 entitled Spitting Nuisance :
For a year and a half I was a daily passenger on the Third Avenue elevated line. My trips were made in the early afternoon, at which time scarcely a day passed when there were not from one to five “bluecoats” [policemen] in the car in which I was riding…I kept count, with the result that four-fifths of these officers were observed to break the law [against spitting].
J.M. also noted that no-spitting signs were posted clearly within the cars and stations of the transit system; however, the word used on the signs was "expectorate" rather than "spit". At first, according to his letter, he wondered if the men in blue simply didn't understand the "expectorate" word. But after eighteen months of observation, he put his wonders aside.
(You can read the entire letter here in PDF format.)
What's in that Spit, Anyway?
The most common harmful bacteria in a sputum culture are those that can cause bronchitis or pneumonia (Streptococcus pneumoniae, Staphylococcus aureus, Haemophilus influenzae, Klebsiella pneumoniae, and Chlamydia pneumoniae) or tuberculosis (Mycobacterium tuberculosis). Mycoplasma, a group of organisms similar to bacteria, can also cause a type of pneumonia.
There are fungi there, too.
From Yahoo Health.
Ninety-five years later, not much had changed in New York. To mark the 100th anniversary of the enactment of the city’s law against spitting, The New York Times published these words in May, 1996:
Adopted to prevent the spread of disease, the law hasn't changed much in a century. Sidewalks, public transit and buildings (floors, walls, stairways) are still taboo targets…Could a hawker do hard time nowadays? Not likely, says…an eight-year veteran of the New York Police Department's Transit Bureau who has never issued a $25 summons for spitting. And no judge in recent memory has imposed the maximum 10-day jail sentence.
John Smith House, Palmyra, NY
Big cities are not the only ones to face this dilemma. In 2003, the small community of Palmyra, New York reviewed their local ordinances with an eye to revising outdated laws and penalties. Among the proposals was the suggestion to increase the fine and jail time mandated by a 1909 law banning public spitting. The Village Board left the law intact, but increased the fine to $250 and the jail term to fifteen days. Interestingly, the townspeople found themselves at odds over this proposal, with many calling it ridiculous, even dinosaur-like. Palmyra’s code enforcement officer noted that he has never charged anyone with spitting in the past, but if he’s told to do so now, he will oblige.
The Twisted Consequences of Spitting Ambivalence
Most people agree that spitting is repulsive, disgusting, and potentially dangerous. One would think it would be a simple matter to legislate against it. But there’s very little that is simple about the relationship between spitting and the law. The following cases illustrate the convoluted legal paths judges, juries, and even law enforcement officials are asked to walk when spit is involved.
Spitting Consequences in Oklahoma
In Creek County, Oklahoma, where it is a felony to place bodily fluids on a law enforcement officer, a man received a life sentence for spitting on a police officer. It took the jury only fifteen minutes to decide. Now think about this for a minute: What would have happened to this gentleman if he had spit on you, you who are not a law enforcement officer? In all likelihood, nothing would have happened, since this law doesn’t protect the average citizen, and there is no simple anti-spitting law on the local books. (To be fair to the county and the gentleman, the harsh sentence was levied under the local repeat offender laws. Apparently, this gentleman had been very bad for a long time.)
Chicago Chimes In
In Chicago, in 2003, a young man was arrested for spitting on the street. Chicago used to have a ban on spitting on a public street, but it was repealed in 1997. The arresting officer was not aware of the repeal. Needless to say, the charge against the young man was dropped, but his mother threatened to sue the city for civil-rights violations against her son, claiming that the arrest was racially motivated. Meanwhile, 211 spitting tickets were issued after the ban was lifted, the violators paid their fines, and, as of 2003, the city was attempting to issue refunds. If this case boggles your mind, you have plenty of company.
Spitting in Seattle
- Seattle's spitting image is just that, spitting
A humorous look at a city drenched in spit, plus great wordplay on the "spit" word.
Let's Hear It from Seattle
Moving along to the west coast, Seattle’s citizens have faced similar confusions in their battles with twisted spitting legislation. Do you know that it is not against the law to spit on the sidewalk, but it is against the law to sit on one? The reported tongue-in-cheek explanation for this convolution is that the law protects citizens from sitting in spittle.
What Is this Ambivalence about Spitting?
For as much as most people detest the habit, and for as prevalent as anti-spitting laws are, there are surprisingly few convictions. Some say that more education is needed about the health dangers inherent in spitting. Some say that it’s a communications problem, as we saw in the Chicago case. What I say is that the root of the problem lies in the answer to the question, why do guys spit?
Questions & Answers
© 2009 Sherri