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 – email@example.com – or on twitter – @whitevs7
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