‘Oh, fudge’: Massachusetts town approves $20 fine for swearing in public

Holly Bensur Contributor
Font Size:

Oh fudge! The residents of Middleborough voted 183-50 at a town meeting Monday to approve the chief of police’s proposal to enforce a $20 fine on public potty-mouths. The move has attracted attention from as far away as England, whose leaders were certainly the targets of more than a few Massachusetts swear words a few centuries ago.

“Officials insist the proposal was not intended to censor casual or private conversations,” The Telegraph reported in London, “but instead to crack down on loud, profanity-laden language used by teens and other young people in the downtown area and public parks.”

Those who opted for the restriction on language, like Mimi Duphily, the owner of an auto-parts store and former town selectwoman, say the new rule was needed in order to make sure her customers weren’t uncomfortable.

State law allows towns to enforce local laws giving police the authority to arrest anyone who swears at another person in a public place. Still, the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment free-speech clause may be the ultimate trump card — if anyone felt like fighting a $20 ticket.

The Associated Press reported that “Mathew Segal, legal director of 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,”

In the 1974 Lewis v. City of New Orleans decision, America’s highest court reversed a lower court’s ruling that made it unlawful “to curse or revile or to use obscene or opprobrious language toward or with reference to” a police officer on duty. The ordinance was “susceptible of application to protected speech,” the court ruled, “and therefore is overbroad in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments and facially invalid.”

While that case wasn’t about 1970s street gangs, today’s “loud, profanity-laden” Middleborough teenagers could argue it applied. By the time their appeal made it to the nine robed justices in Washington, D.C., however, they likely wouldn’t be teenagers anymore.

The Massachusetts town about halfway between Boston and Cape Cod, first established a law against public profanity in 1968. Peace officers have never enforced it because of the “the time and expense to pursue a case through the courts,” according to an AP wire report.

The new ordinance would take cussing out of the criminal code and turn it into a lower-level infraction, permitting police to write a ticket as they would for speeding or jaywalking.

Follow Holly on Twitter