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In one eastern Massachusetts town, lewd language will now cost you. Residents of Middleborough (pop. 20,000) voted Monday night to impose a $20 fine on vulgarities uttered in public.
The Associated Press explains that the town's police chief first proposed the ordinance to cut down on belligerent, antisocial cussing in public places. The proposal passed 183 votes to 50 at a town meeting, as several residents and business owners expressed their exasperation with ribaldry that they said was keeping delicate-eared customers inside and away from local businesses.
The fine raises concerns among many about infringement on First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court has ruled that public speech cannot be silenced merely because it contains offensive language. However, under Massachusetts state law, towns may enforce laws that give police power to arrest people who address "another person with profane or obscene language" in public.
Other residents are more concerned about the enforceability of the ordinance, with one local merchant likening it to an attempt to ban George Carlin's "seven dirty words." Generally, the gravity of the profanity is up to the discretion of the ticketing officer.
Actually, public swearing in Middleborough was criminalized by a 1968 law that has rarely, possibly never, been enforced. Monday’s vote decriminalized swearing, instead imposing a fine that will be ticketed like traffic violations, in hopes that police officers will be more likely to take action.
The swearing ban was one of a host of antisocial offenses decriminalized, including littering, dumping snow on roadways, and smoking marijuana in public.
You can read more on the swearing ban over at the Boston Globe.