NORTH AUGUSTA — The meanings of words change over time and sometimes their connotations become more prominent than their definitions. Occasionally, that evolution of common meaning requires a change in the law.
Consider the word “molest.”
Today, it’s used almost exclusively to refer to a sex crime.
But in the 1950s, it was used to describe generally harassing behavior, such as cursing in public or aggressive panhandling, even trespassing.
That’s still the first definition of the transitive verb in the Merriam Webster Dictionary: “to annoy, disturb, or persecute, especially with hostile intent or injurious effect. The zookeeper warned the visitors not to molest the animals.”
The second definition adds what most people think of today: “to make annoying sexual advances to; especially : to force physical and usually sexual contact on someone. He was sent to prison for molesting children.“
North Augusta’s city code, until Monday night, included the offense of “molesting adults and children.” Council changed it to “disturbing adults and children” to get away from the falsely implied sexual connotation.
It’s both confusing and distressing, said City Attorney Kelly Zier, who was asked by Chief John Thomas to look into changing the title, or name, of the law. Thomas said it can cause problems “when someone is written a ticket, and they’re charged with molesting” when no sex crime was committed.
“We have made determination that it reads better to change and take molesting out of that to avoid misconceptions as to what violation has taken place,” Zier told council Monday night.
He found that it was first adopted in the early 1950s as “molesting women and children.” In 1970, council changed it to “molesting adults and children,” though no one was really sure why.
“In another 30 years or so someone might want to do something with it again,” Zier said.
The body of the law did not change. It reads:
Sec. 16-76. - Molesting adults and children.
(a) It shall be unlawful for any person wilfully or intentionally to interfere with, disturb, or in any way molest any adult or child in the city, while on any public street, sidewalk, park or square or in any place of public amusement or other building or place or upon privately owned premises where such person may have entered without permission or as a trespasser.
(b) It shall be unlawful for any person to invite or attempt to have any adult or child to enter a vehicle for the purpose of molesting or willfully disturbing such adult or child.
(c) It shall be unlawful for any person to molest or disturb any adult or child by the making of obscene remarks or such remarks and actions as would humiliate or insult or scare such adult or child.
(d) It shall be unlawful for any person to follow any adult or child along any street, sidewalk or other place within the city for the purpose of molesting, disturbing, harassing or annoying such adult or child.
Council voted 6-0, with Jimmy Adams absent, to change the title of the ordinance to “Disturbing or Interfering with Adults and Children.”
Reach James Folker at (706) 823-3338 or firstname.lastname@example.org.