Proposed Profanity Curb in Middleborough A Good Idea In A Crude World

I was in the gym the other day, when I heard, quite loudly, a group of people who were having a discussion. The F-word played a loud — and prominent — part in their conversation, and they quite blatantly didn’t care who heard them. Similarly, I was in a drugstore not too long ago, when another customer started complaining to the other customers in line about the lack of service. He also, quite loudly, dropped the F-bomb to all of us. It occurred to me (and not for the first time): Remember, not so long ago, when people spoke in hushed tones when they swore in a public place – if they swore at all?

Well, the Town of Middleborough, Massachusetts has had enough, and decided to do something about it. And I couldn’t agree more. A citizen activist in that town approached a group of similarly concerned residents on the issue of the seeming explosion in the use of profanity, vulgarity and expletives in public. This group then approached the local business association on the issue, and soon a coalition of similarly-minded people discussed the matter with the local police chief. The chief brought a proposal to Town Meeting for debate and vote on a local bylaw that would allow police to impose a $20 fine for cursing aloud in public. People in violation of this proposal are defined in the proposed bylaw as those who “accost or address another person with profane or obscene language in a street.”

Before the American Civil Liberties Union has a chance to jump in with arms flailing, programatically predicting the end of “free speech” in this country, they should read the above definition: This local measure would not result in the “speech police” roaming the streets with fines in hand. You can banish images of baton-wielding police, trained Taliban-like to terrorize anyone found to curse in public. If you crush your thumb in your car door and curse to yourself, no one is going to leap on you.

No, this not merely civic-minded, but civil minded proprosal aims to deter the loud, profanity-laced vulgarians, who increasingly assault the rest of us with their foul mouths and filthy language in public. This is a good and reasonable proposal to encourage a return to the “civics” and civil behavior that kids used to be taught in schools (no, to those who might guess as to my age, I’m no old fogey; and as to political stripe, I’m neither a Democrat or Republican.) But the reasonableness of this proposal hasn’t stopped the liberals and civil libertarians from screaming out against it, claiming the end of “free speech” across the land. That includes the usual liberal drivel from The Boston Globe, who predictably editorialized against the proposal, almost a month ago. Their editors are quite aware of my distaste for their perenially liberal positions on public policy (which is why they never seek my comment on newsworthy legal cases, as do several other media, including The Boston Herald, The Metro News, and Fox TV-25, and WBZ-AM Radio. But that’s another story, for another day.)

People in support of this proposal say that it isn’t meant to censor private conversations, but instead, crack down on loud profanity that is heard in public parks and in downtown Middleborough (as it is in so many other public places.) Opponents of this reasonable proposal have already inveighed that this is an “infringement of our First Amendment rights.” What most of these fools don’t realize is that the First Amendment was created to protect citizens speech against government. The First Amendment was NOT created, and was not intended, to grant anyone and everyone the unfettered right to say anything they want, at any time they want, wherever and whenever they want. Period. So let’s put that away.

Actually, Middleborough already has an old public profanity bylaw on the books, which was passed in 1968, and which makes swearing a crime. But police, a long time ago, made the decision not to enforce it. That was, sadly,at a time when people knew how to act, and how to speak, in public.

Even though I am a Norfolk County criminal defense attorney, I’m in support of this $20 civil fine on swearing, because in my view, we are all being assaulted by an increasing decline in dignity. Call me old-fashioned, but I can’t stand it when I’m auditorially assaulted by people swearing around me, with other people and at other people. I see this in all kinds of public places – stores, airports, in planes, in the workplace – even in public libraries. The attitudinal “license” to act this way, of course, is driven largely by the media, where vulgarity has become the norm. I don’t want to hear it. Can’t people conduct themselves civilly towards each other, without having filthy language that everyone is forced to overhear?

Apparently this proposal has struck a chord with the public, with newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal and The Sacramento Bee weighing in.

Certainly, swearing in public shouldn’t be a criminal offense — there are far too many other crimes for law enforcement to contend with, be they sex crimes, drug offenses, theft crimes or other Massachusetts crimes. But there should somewhere be a disincentive for people to swear and use profane language in public places, because it seems clear that far too many members of the general public cannot rein themselves in.

As of the time this post was published, sources tell me that the Middlebororugh Town Meeting has approved this measure. Congratulations again to the voters in that town. This is a powerful message, and its meaning will be heard not only across Masssachusetts, but will ripple across the United States, as the national media coverage so far has proven.

The measure must now be approved by the state Attorney General. Here’s hoping this reasonable and much-needed measure becomes law, notwithstanding the Boston Globe’s liberal opposition (which I am confident we have not heard the last of.)