Foul-mouthed bylaw may violate rights

‘Watch your mouth.”

The admonition often conveyed by parents of potty-mouthed children may now be heard echoing through the picturesque streets of Middleborough, Mass. And if the bawdy philistines of all ages don’t heed the warning, they might have to fork over some dough.

Nestled between Taunton and Plymouth, Middleborough is not the kind of town that conjures thoughts of foul-mouthed louts. But as anyone who has been out in public these days knows, common discourse often includes words once reserved for sailors and convicts.

Apparently, the good folks of Middleborough are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore. They attracted national attention last week by voting to fine people who don’t keep their public language clean.

The decision was not out of character for the town of 23,000. Still on its books is a 1968 bylaw prohibiting public profanity. But because of the paperwork and time needed to criminally charge offenders, police rarely enforced it.

So in hopes seeing offenders brought to some level of justice, the Middleborough citizens decided to decriminalize profanity to make it a ticketable offense similar to a parking violation.

The original bylaw read:

“Whoever having arrived at the age of discretion accosts or addresses another person with profane or obscene language in a street or other public place, may be punished by a fine of not more than $20.00 dollars.”

The wording of the new bylaw adds:

“[A police officer], as an alternative to initiating criminal proceedings, may give to the offender a written notice to appear before the clerk of the district court having jurisdiction thereof.”

The problem with this change isn’t just about the desire to curb curse words, but the loose language used to try to enforce the halt.

The wording is vague – encouraging subjective and possibly discriminatory enforcement. It requires citizens to make assumptions about what a police officer will consider profane or obscene. The police chief even stated that persons using expletives regarding a dropped ice cream cone or sporting event would not be cited.

Besides, the expanded ability for Middleborough police to offer a citation is pointless and probably unenforceable. According to the Harvard Law & Policy Review, the bylaw fails to provide enough notice of what is prohibited, and the imprecise language would likely be struck down in court.

The profanity crackdown started when local business owner Mimi Duphily, 63, took it upon herself to try to stop the back-and-forth of foul language used in her area. She asked people to stop, and when they wouldn’t, she took her campaign to City Hall where it ultimately lead to the change in the law.

But the language being used by the people who offended Duphily is not threatening, intimidating or in any other way harassment toward anyone. It’s being used in conversation and therefore protected by the First Amendment. The ease by which police officers are now empowered to stomp out free speech is especially troubling. Certainly law enforcement has more important things to do than serve as stand-in nannies

Middleborough residents who want stop the potty-talk should reconsider whether their crusade justifies the subjugation of one of our most important civil rights.