Residents in a town outside Boston recently voted to make cursing in public a crime punishable with a fine.
At a town meeting, the measured passed 183-50.
Officials say the proposal is not intended to censor casual or private conversations, but instead to stop loud, profanity-laden language used by teens and other young people in the downtown area and public parks.
“I’m really happy about it,” Mimi Duphily, a store owner and former town selectwoman, said after the vote. “I’m sure there’s going to be some fallout, but I think what we did was necessary.”
Duphily, who runs an auto parts store as well as many other downtown merchants wanted to take a stand against the kind of swearing that might make customers uncomfortable.
“They’ll sit on the bench and yell back and forth to each other with the foulest language. It’s just so inappropriate,” she said.
The measure could raise questions about free speech rights, but state law does give police the power to arrest anyone who “addresses another person with profane or obscene language” in a public place.
Matthew Segal, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the government cannot prohibit public speech just because it contains profanity.
The ordinance gives police discretion over whether to ticket someone if they believe the cursing ban has been violated.
Middleborough, a town of about 20,000 residents has had a bylaw against public profanity since 1968. But because that bylaw essentially makes cursing a crime, it has rarely if ever been enforced, officials said, because it simply would not merit the time and expense to pursue a case through the courts.
The ordinance would decriminalize public profanity, allowing police to write tickets as they would for a traffic violation. It would also decriminalize certain types of disorderly conduct, public drinking and marijuana use, and dumping snow on a roadway.
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