On Monday night, residents of Middleborough, Massachusetts, voted 183-50 to approve a proposal allowing the police to issue $20 fines to people who use profane language in public. Though Yahoo News reported that the ban is specifically intended to stop teenagers from using profane language in public parks and the town center, there is apparently nothing preventing police from enforcing the ban much more broadly. Speaking in favor of the ban, one resident lamented foul language as “inappropriate,” and noted, "I'm sure there's going to be some fallout, but I think what we did was necessary."
Some fallout?? The implications of Middleborough’s new law are truly alarming. Patently ignoring the Constitution, raising complex questions about what is offensive enough to censor, and stoking continued concerns about the use of government to further subjective values is substantially more than some fallout.
One resident who supports the new law said, “I don't care what you do in private. It's in public what bothers me." Yet eliminating things that bother people is not, nor should it be, the point of the American legal system. If it was, plagues like traffic jams and people who say “supposebly” would have been banned long ago.
According to freedomforum.org, a nonpartisan, pro-First Amendment group, the First Amendment’s free speech protections can be restricted only in certain special cases, like when language will create a dangerous situation or incite immediate violence. The Supreme Court has never ruled that “bothering people” justifies curbing free speech rights. Upon hearing about the new law, ACLU of Massachusetts legal director Matthew Segal stated plainly that people could “end up getting fined for constitutionally protected speech,” effectively nullifying the Constitution’s free speech protection.
If eliminating speech that residents find inappropriate is Middleborough’s new legal standard, the town has much more work to do. How should the police enforce the law? Which four-letter words are inappropriate? How about taking the Lord’s name in vain? How about hand gestures? How many people does something need to offend to be banned? A tone of voice, or even a look can be offensive. If offensive verbal communication can be restricted, why not non-verbal? How about the town movie theater?
If profane language in public is really banned in Middleborough, the theater should only be showing G-rated movies.
Identifying the line between what is appropriate and what is not relies on the inherent differences we all have in opinions and values — differences which a free society is supposed to allow for. When it comes to values, there is no universal right or wrong. Yet this law will force everyone who ventures into Middleborough to abide by one particular set of values, regardless of their own views. The law should neglect to impose needless conformity, and instead treat subjective values carefully by protecting that which does not harm others — and offense is not harm.
Though the fine is just $20, this law cannot and should not stand. In a legal system that relies on precedent, the Supreme Court should act quickly to strike it down before some other jurisdiction uses the same principle to justify much more widely repressive measures with much more stringent penalties. Surely the Supreme Court’s existing free speech standards are good enough for Middleborough anyway.