Moral Low Ground

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Middleborough, Massachusetts Bans Swearing in Public, Imposes $20 Fine for Profanity

Residents of a Massachusetts town have voted to ban public swearing and to impose a $20 fine for public profanity.

By a Monday night vote of 183-50, residents of Middleborough, population 23,116, approved a proposal from police chief Bruce D. Gates to levy a $20 fine on anyone heard uttering profanity in public within the 72 square miles comprising the Plymouth County town.

Gate’s proposal was reportedly tabled after a rise in potty-mouthed youth overheard spewing profanities in the town’s downtown area and public parks. Based on the resounding “yes” vote, Middleborough residents seem more concerned about a few bad words than about restricting free speech.

“I’m really happy about it,” store owner Mimi Duphily said of the ban. “I’m sure there’s going to be some fallout, but I think what we did was necessary,” she told the Associated Press. Duphily said that youngsters “sit on the bench and yell back and forth to each other with the foulest language.”

“It’s just so inappropriate,” she added.

Although the new law gives police discretion regarding who to cite for swearing, civil liberties groups say it violates residents’ First Amendment rights.

Massachusetts state law does permit municipalities to enforce local laws allowing police to arrest people who “address another person with profane or obscene language” in public.

But the US Supreme Court has ruled that the prohibition of public speech containing profanity is unconstitutional. For example, in Cohen v. California (1971), the Court ruled in favor of a man who had been arrested for wearing a jacket in a courthouse emblazoned with the words “Fuck the Draft.” His conviction was overturned.

“People might end up getting fined for constitutionally protected speech,” worried ACLU of Massachusetts legal director Matthew Segal.

Middleborough’s new law is actually a remedy for a 1968 law that made public swearing a crime. That made police extremely reluctant to enforce it. Monday’s measure decriminalizes public profanity, permitting police to ticket violators. It also decriminalizes public drinking and marijuana use as well as dumping snow on roadways.

Kudos to Middleborough for decriminalizing public drinking and weed-smoking. But Moral Low Ground predicts the profanity ban doesn’t stand a chance if any constitutionally-minded citizens decide to challenge it in court. You know, free speech and all that good shit.

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