Posts Tagged ‘Massachusetts’


Massachusetts town fines for public swearing, First Amendment advocates scratch heads

A small town in Massachusetts has imposed a $20 fine for swearing in public. In order to make punishments for offenses more actionable, residents of Middleborough, Mass., voted to make profanity in a public area punishable by fine, along with public marijuana smoking, drinking and dumping snow in roadways.

A similar measure has been on the books in Middleborough since 1968. However, while swearing was a crime in the 1968 ordinance, the new measure is an attempt to “decriminalize” and make it more likely for the police to enforce.

“…people might end up getting fined for constitutionally protected speech.”  - Matthew Segal, ACLU of Mass. legal director

Rather than limit all swearing, this ordinance aims to curb loud profanity in the parks and downtown areas, city officials said, according to the Washington Post.

I’m really happy about it,” Mimi Duphily, a store owner and former town selectwoman, said after the vote, according to the Asociated Press. “I’m sure there’s going to be some fallout, but I think what we did was necessary.”

The First Amendment is an obvious concern. Court cases such as Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire and Cohen v. California helped establish freedom of speech. Profanity is allowable under the First Amendment except in cases of true threats, fighting words or an incitement to imminent lawless action.

“If the Massachusetts attorney general approves it, the ordinance would encourage police to ticket speech that is, and likely will eventually be found to be, constitutionally protected,” a Washington Post editorial said.

Whitney is the summer Pulliam/Killgore intern with SPJ. She recently graduated from Brigham Young University after studying journalism. Connect with her via email –  wevans@hq.spj.org –  or on twitter – @whitevs7

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FOI DAILY DOSE: British Columbia gets proactive about open gov, Mass. budget planned in secret

British Columbia plans for more transparency

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark is poised to make good on her promise to make government more transparent, notably with a directive supporting the active disclosure of data.

Clark has already promoted online communications and town-hall meetings as important avenues for open government, and her proposed policy of proactive disclosure would greatly increase citizens’ access to government information.

British Columbia’s government would regularly make data public that is currently only accessible through formal freedom of information act requests, according to a Vancouver Sun editorial.

Clark plans to move toward an open data model that will provide citizens with information on a variety of topics, ranging from the environment to health to spending, in a searchable and easily accessible format.

Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham has warned the government that privacy rights must be considered when planning such broad information disclosures.

Stephanie Cadieux, Minister of Labour, Citizens’ Services and Open Government,  and the cabinet committee on open government are developing a specific game plan for implementing this open data policy, although – ironically – it is exempt from access-to-information legislation (as are all cabinet committees).

Mass. budget negotiated behind closed doors

The Massachusetts legislature negotiated a $30.6 billion budget deal in almost total secrecy.

The budget, approved in July, was planned by six legislators who met for 24 days in discussions kept out of the public’s notice. The locations and times for the meet-ups, as well as their agendas and debates, were kept quiet, and no minutes were taken for any of the meetings, according to the Boston Globe.

This kind of information blackout isn’t uncommon in Massachusetts, which has almost no requirements for lawmakers to publicly discuss government business. Fewer than 20 states have similar secrecy practices, and Massachusetts is one of about 10 states in which citizens don’t even have the right to see legislators’ records.

Although public testimony was collected and floor debates were held concerning the budget, the key choices made at the opening and closing of deliberations were decided in secret.

When the legislature votes to approve measures, it is often more of a formality because key leaders have already made the real agreements behind closed doors.

If you want to know more about Massachusetts’ not-so-open open government laws and how they compare to those of other states, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has an open government guide that’s awfully helpful.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

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