As we move slowly towards the over-the-top nanny-state envisioned in Demolition Man, with the state empowered to regulate even the most mundane of human interactions, one might be tempted to drop a few choice words in disbelief. In Massachusetts, that expression might cost you a few bucks .
This week, residents in Middleborough, Massachusetts voted to ban curse words in the public square. The new ordinance would make the use of offensive language in public areas punishable by a fine of twenty dollars per word. Perhaps more disconcerting, is the way that the law will be enforced. The new law doesn’t specifically list what words are forbidden and gives the police wide discretion in what expression might warrant a ticket. As the chief of police noted, “cussing tickets would not be issued to two guys watching a sporting event that went bad or if someone who drops an ice cream drops an “F-bomb.”
Opponents of the new law have rightly expressed concerns that banning certain disfavored words from the public square violates the First Amendment and that allowing officers such wide discretion in enforcing the law raises serious Due Process and vagueness concerns.
Surprisingly, such restrictive laws are nothing new for the state which, ironically, was the host of the original Boston Tea Party. The new law actually serves as a revival of a local bi-law passed in 1968 which made public profanity a criminal offense. Fortunately, the inherent ridiculousness of criminalizing naughty words resulted in the original law being seldomly enforced.
It will be interesting to see if anyone will challenge this law on constitutional grounds. The fact that such laws were passed in the first place is a sad indictment for the state who’s taverns arguably acted as the nurseries for the American Revolution.