If you’re out in public in Middleborough, Mass., don’t use filthy language. You might get fined. Earlier this week, the residents of Middleborough voted 183-50 approving a proposal to impose a $20 fine on profanity in public.
Ironically, the new ordinance actually decriminalizes public profanity: Since 1968, the town has had a bylaw on the books that makes cursing in public a crime. But considering the effort it would take to haul a curser into court, it was rarely enforced. So now, the ordinance merely fines those who use profanity in public and allows police to write tickets for it, much like a traffic stop. You’re welcome, Middleborough!
The city’s officials say they’re just trying to reduce the sort of foul language used by teens in public parks. It’s not meant to outlaw casual conversations or conversing in private, they say.
But the new ordinance is being questioned by the American Civil Liberties Union in Massachusetts on whether it’s constitutional under the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. They argue that the government can’t prohibit public speech simply because it uses a few curse words.
The ordinance also “decriminalized” — but imposes fines on — a number of other crimes in the town. Littering will now cost residents $50; shoveling snow into the street, $50; and smoking marijuana in public, $300.
Clearly a number of the town’s residents fully support the measure. One store owner is quoted saying she just wanted those naughty kids who sit in the park to stop yelling back and forth at each other using foul language. “It’s just so inappropriate,” she said.
But a number of writers and bloggers think that the town is wasting its time worrying about a few bad words. Matthew Segal, the legal director of ACLU of Massachusetts, wrote on Boston.com: “Some laws are good, some are bad, and some are just @!#$! ridiculous. A new anti-swearing provision passed by the town of Middleborough falls into that last category.”
Segal, whose column was titled, “WTF, Middleborough?”, calls the ban clearly unconstitutional, citing the Supreme Court case Cohen v. California, which says that the government cannot ban public speech for profanity.
While supportive, some of the town’s residents clearly see a backlash coming. “I’m really happy about it,” the Middleborough store owner said. “I’m sure there’s going to be some fall-out, but I think what we did was necessary.”