MIDDLEBOROUGH, Mass. – Residents in Middleborough voted Monday night to make the foul-mouthed pay fines for swearing in public.
At a town meeting, residents voted 183-50 to approve a proposal from the police chief to impose a $20 fine on public profanity.
Officials insist the proposal was not intended to censor casual or private conversations, but instead to crack down on loud, profanity-laden language used by teens and other young people in the downtown area and public parks.
I'm really happy about it," Mimi Duphily, a store owner and former town selectwoman, said after the vote. "I'm sure there's going to be some fallout, but I think what we did was necessary."
Duphily, who runs an auto parts store, is among the downtown merchants who wanted take a stand against the kind of swearing that can make customers uncomfortable.
"They'll sit on the bench and yell back and forth to each other with the foulest language. It's just so inappropriate," she said.
The measure could raise questions about First Amendment rights, but state law does allow towns to enforce local laws that give police the power to arrest anyone who "addresses another person with profane or obscene language" in a public place.
Matthew Segal, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the government cannot prohibit public speech just because it contains profanity.
The ordinance gives police discretion over whether to ticket someone if they believe the cursing ban has been violated.
Middleborough, a town of about 20,000 residents perhaps best known for its rich cranberry bogs, has had a bylaw against public profanity since 1968. But because that bylaw essentially makes cursing a crime, it has rarely if ever been enforced, officials said, because it simply would not merit the time and expense to pursue a case through the courts.
The ordinance would decriminalize public profanity, allowing police to write tickets as they would for a traffic violation. It would also decriminalize certain types of disorderly conduct, public drinking and marijuana use, and dumping snow on a roadway.
Segal praised Middleborough for reconsidering its bylaw against public profanity, but said fining people for it isn't much better.
"Police officers who never enforced the bylaw might be tempted to issue these fines, and people might end up getting fined for constitutionally protected speech," he said.
Another local merchant, Robert Saquet, described himself as "ambivalent" about the no-swearing proposal, likening it to try to enforce a ban on the seven dirty words of George Carlin, a nod to a famous sketch by the late comedian.
"In view of words commonly used in movies and cable TV, it's kind of hard to define exactly what is obscene," said Paquet, who owns a downtown furniture store.
But Duphily said, "I don't care what you do in private. It's in public what bothers me."