Cursing up a storm in Middleborough
If George Carlin could speak from the other side, he’d probably have some choice words for the good citizens of Middleborough, Massachusetts. Middleborough town meeting recently voted to levy a $20 fine against people who use profanity in public. One town resident invoked Carlin’s famous routine about the “seven words you can never say on television,” noting that between movies and cable TV “it’s kind of hard to define exactly what’s obscene.”
The move by Middleborough actually decriminalized an existing bylaw against swearing that had not been enforced because it required formal prosecution. The new approach is causing a stir because police might actually begin enforcing the ban since they can now issue a $20 civil citation rather than arrest offending cursers.
Most cities and towns in the Bay State could close budget gaps with by fining people who take cursing to the next level. Middleborough Police Chief Bruce Gates didn’t specify what types of swearing would merit a fine, but negative reactions to Red Sox losses seems to have been ruled out.
Unfortunately, the well-intentioned effort to take back the center of town from foul-mouth types who detract from a family-friendly atmosphere may create more problems than it solves.There is the not so small matter of First Amendment-protected speech. Though the US Supreme Court has ruled speech must be protected even if offensive, speech that disturbs the peace by provoking a fight or other disorderly conduct is another matter.
Regulating offensive public behavior that doesn’t stray into criminal territory has always been a tough call. Mostly overlooked in Middleborough furor over cursing were several new fines aimed at public behavior. People can now be ticketed for disorderly conduct ($20 or $50); throwing snow or ice into the street ($50); and public consumption of alcohol ($50) or marijuana ($300).
Society’s shifting mores on behavior like cursing makes these calls even tougher. Outbursts that would have elicited gasps even a generation ago are just normal parts of speech for some people today.
Middleborough isn’t the first place on the planet to try and get people to cleanup their potty mouths, but it’s letting potential violators off easy. A small town in northern England decided to hand out fines well north of $100 for one month last summer. Three Australian states, New South Wales, Queensland, and Victoria, have anti-swearing laws on the books.
Last year, Victoria (population 5.6 million) began to levy fines of about $240 on people who swear in public. Robert Clark, the state’s attorney general, explained that the move would “free up police resources” by enabling police to issue ”on-the-spot” fines. He also offered up a view that would resonate with Middleborough town meeting members. “It will also enable [police] to more effectively act against the sort of loud-mouthed, obnoxious behavior that can make going out to public places unpleasant for other members of the public,” he said.
During a 2009-2010 trial run of the measure, police in Victoria fined nearly 800 people for bad language. Some Australian legal experts have raised questions about inconsistent application of the law, since what one police officer deems offensive may not seem so bad to another.
How police officers in a Massachusetts town of more than 20,000 determine what crosses the line and how much time they spend determining that remains to be seen. But it could be worse. After the third offense in Victoria, a violator is subject to six months imprisonment.
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