No %#&$? Mass. Town Imposes $20 Swearing Fine

By Andrew Lu on June 13, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

One has to wonder just how bad the cursing was in the small Massachusetts town of Middleborough to prompt residents to pass an ordinance imposing a $20 swearing fine.

The small town of about 20,000 residents is near Plymouth in pilgrim country. It's perhaps best known for its cranberry bogs. Perhaps it was well known for its potty mouths too?

Well, now we'll never know.

At a town meeting earlier this week, residents voted 183-50 to approve a proposal from the police chief to impose the $20 swearing fine, reports MSNBC. 

But to clear up any misconceptions, the fine is only intended to be levied on public profanity and does not limit profanity in casual or private conversations. So residents can still feel free to curse at each other in measured tones during private conversations.

Apparently, bored teens in the downtown area and in public parks would spew vitriol at each other and passer-bys. This foul language made some store owners and their customers uncomfortable, reports MSNBC.

While cleaning up public profanity may be a worthwhile goal, one also has to wonder whether this swearing fine runs afoul of First Amendment free speech rights.

After all, this Middleborough ordinance gives police discretion to pick and choose conversations it deems profane and to issue a $20 ticket. Previously, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that the government cannot prohibit public speech just because it contains profanity, reports MSNBC.

Middleborough officials may justify their ordinance -- if it is ever challenged -- by arguing that teens cursing at other people is not protected "public speech." Instead, they may argue that it's more akin to harassment. After all, the First Amendment does not protect you if you decide to yell curse words in the face of some random stranger on the street.

Middleborough, Massachusetts officials attempted to create their own Pleasantville by passing an ordinance allowing a $20 swearing fine for public profanity. If it is ever challenged, it would make an interesting First Amendment case analysis.

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