'Swear Jar' Law Draws Reactions Far and Wide

By Cristina Quinn

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June 12, 2012

no swearing sign
Perhaps the town will have to post a no-swearing sign. (Sir Intellegent/Wikimedia)

BOSTON — At a June 11 Middleborough town meeting, residents approved a proposal to impose a $20 fine for using profane language in public — and now it's made headlines worldwide.

Mimi Duphily said she and other merchants in downtown Middleborough were fed up with the high school kids yelling and swearing at the park close by, and wanted to take a stand.

"I find it very difficult that a young person can’t string together six words without having two F-bombs in it. You know, learn a little bit of English and learn how to express yourself in a better manner rather than always swearing," Duphily said.

Middleborough has had a bylaw against public profanity since 1968. But it's rarely been enforced because, officials said, pursuing a case in court would be too costly. The new ordinance decriminalizes the bylaw, allowing police to issue tickets instead.

That's raised questions about First Amendment rights.

Matthew Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said that while decriminalizing the bylaw is a good thing, profanity is a constitutionally protected right, and that this new ordinance could prevent people from exercising their freedom of speech because they’re worried about getting fined.

“This kind of provision stops people from engaging in protective speech, and exposes people to the risk that they are going to be fined based on better discretion of police officers to single out which acts of profanity they think are worth fining,” Segal said.

Duphily contended it was not a move against free speech but rather against unacceptable behavior.

“You can express yourself. You can have a conversation with someone, you can be in a bar, in a coffee shop — anywhere, but when you get out into public, on the public streets, there’s a level of acceptability and non-acceptability,” she said.
 
Duphily is not alone in her convictions. She has received countless phone calls in support from people in California, Virginia, Philadelphia, New York and even Germany.

Our partners at the Takeaway are asking: What would you outlaw in your town? Tweet your answer with the hashtag #whatwouldyououtlawResults so far include "motorcycles so loud they trigger car alarms" and "Nickelback."

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