Massachusetts Town Imposes $20 Fine For Swearing In Public

If you happen to be passing through the town of Middleborough, Massachusetts, you better watch what you say:

A Massachusetts town is crying foul on residents with dirty mouths.

Middleborough, a town of about 20,000 residents in the southeastern corner of the state, voted 183-50 on Monday to empower police officers to issue a $20 fine for cursing in public,The Associated Press reported. As there’s no official list of offending words, tickets are left to the officer’s discretion, Police Chief Bruce Gates said at the town meeting.

“I don’t see an issue, we have a lot of things to do. This is not a priority,” he said, according toThe Patriot Ledger.

Gates reportedly said that tickets would not be issued when, for instance, someone swore while watching a sporting event or after dropping an ice cream cone. Instead, officials say the ordinance is meant to target teens and youths who swear loudly in public areas, the AP noted.

This is actually a step back from previous law since there had been a law on the town’s books that criminalized swearing in public, although it has apparently rarely if ever been enforced. It’s not a big deal, as the Police Chief says, but one always does have to be careful about any law that gives so much discretion to police officers. Moreover, wouldn’t the issue of “teens and youths who swear loudly in public areas” be covered under a Disorderly Conduct statute?

As for the legality of a law like this, it may potentially be considered constitutional under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, which upheld a New Hampshire against so-called “fighting words,” but that case is fairly old and there have been dozens of First Amendment cases since then that arguably limit the ability of a government authority to charge someone merely for using a bad word.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Policing, US Politics, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. rodney dill says:

    No shit?

  2. rodney dill says:
  3. Ben Wolf says:

    F**k Middleborough.

  4. JKB says:

    So if the “fighting words” precedent applies, that means there are people in the town who are provoked to violence by the simple utterance of “bad” words within their hearing.

    Seems to me this law is designed to inhibit free speech, provide for discriminant enforcement and is overly vague since there is not defined word list to guide citizens in not violating the law. Say they hire a copper from England, does “bloody” then become on the naughty list?

  5. James Joyner says:

    But Chaplinsky was aimed at public order, not public decency. Calling a cop a “goddamned Fascist” is likely to provoke violence and, given that there’s very little value added, the impingement on free expression in barring such speech is quite limited.

    Aside from inciting violence, the only other limitation of free expression of which I’m aware that has SCOTUS sanction is “obscenity.” But while the F-word has an obscene use–it’s chief use is to describe the sex act in a vulgar way–it’s now so ubiquitous and asexual in its meaning that it normally wouldn’t fit the test.

  6. Wouldn’t this be unconstitutional under a pretty straight forward application of Cohen v. California?

  7. James,

    Chaplinsky is a stretch but it’s really the only case that comes to mind that would be applicable. Mere “bad words” that aren’t directed at a specific person without some kind of conduct accompanying them don’t strike me as being something you can punish someone for. The more important point, though, is that laws like this that give discretion to law enforcement can become the subject of abuse. See, for example, the Police Chief’s comments about directing enforcement of this law toward teenagers who may be doing nothing more than hanging out on a street corner.

    With a $20 fine, though, I’ve got to doubt that this kind of law is ever going to become the subject of a Constitutional case.

  8. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Then when you factor in the presence of the Red Sox and “Red Sox Nation,” the Celtics, the Bruins, the Patriots, along with the Big Dig, I for one would not entirely be opposed to nuking Massachusetts from orbit. It is after all the only way to be sure.

  9. The argument against the applicability of Cohen is that, in that case, the profanity was accompanied by a political message.

  10. John Burgess says:

    @James Joyner: I’d bet that under current USSC precedence, calling a cop a ‘fucking fascist’ would pass muster and not fall under the ‘fight words’ exception. The court has ruled that cops need slightly better self-control than John Q. They have ruled, for example, that flipping off a cop is fully protected, if not wise.

  11. John Burgess says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: WTF are you talking about? It’s those MFYs that cause all the trouble.

  12. al-Ameda says:

    I’m guessing that not much is going on in Middleborough?

    Really, why pass a law like this? It will be enforced once every 15 years or so, and will then be the subject of an OTB discussion of “stupid laws across the country.”

  13. @Doug Mataconis:

    Except the political nature of the message in Cohen seems incidental as neither the law that was overturned, nor the supreme court’s ruling made mention of it.

  14. walt moffett says:

    Just a random thought, could it be a disorderly conduct charge leads to the time consumer that juvenile court can be while a citation doesn’t?

  15. WR says:

    How is it that libertarian Doug has nothing but the slightest concern over a law that gives the government absolute power to decide what speech is lawful and which is not?

    Oh, right. Because it doesn’t directly affect him.

  16. WR,

    Where, exactly, did you get that impression, especially since I made note of the problems inherent in giving police virtually unfettered discretion?

    It is worth noting, I suppose, that this is technically a decriminalization since they took something that was apparently a misdemeanor and made it equivalent to a traffic ticket. Whether it’s Constitutional or not is unclear, as I’ve noted. However, given that we’re talking about a $20 fine here I doubt the Justices of SCOTUS will be dealing with this law anytime soon.

    I don’t like the law, but it’s hardly the biggest threat to free speech out there at the moment.

  17. James H says:

    Also, the Middleborough City Council is replacing all toilet paper with three seashells.

  18. JKB says:

    I got a $20 fine once, cost me $100 by the time they tacked on all the taxes and fees. And I just paid the thing so there weren’t any cost of defending my constitutional rights involved.

    It is obvious this fine is targeted a the poor, the minority and immigrant for whom such a fine would impact their finances.

    Plus, I would just wait and raise a public stink when they don’t apply the law to the local politician, the local cop, well any politician these says, the celebrity, the Presidential crony, if say Rev. Wright chose to come to town and use the very super-secret discretionary list of “bad” words in public.

  19. Jeremy says:

    @James H: Good lord, other people have actually seen that movie?

  20. Jeremy says:

    Eh, f**k em.

    What makes me wonder: what if you’re just passing through?

  21. Jeremy,

    See the Seinfeld season finale for the dangers of passing through towns in Massachusetts with odd laws.

  22. Franklin says:

    @rodney dill: As I recall, there was somebody convicted of that a number of years back which led to a similar discussion to the one we’re having here.

    BTW, I swear in front of my wife constantly. So far nobody’s come to pick me up.

  23. @Jeremy:

    Demolition Man is the second best future totalitarian dystopia movie ever!

  24. rodney dill says:

    @Franklin: I live north of Detroit, and I remember that the incident happened, as it was in the local news around here for awhile. From the link it was in 1999. I didn’t remember that is was that long ago.

  25. Tsar Nicholas says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Whaaat? Look, Stormy, I’m as big a fan as anyone of Stallone doing unintentional self-parody, but Demolition Man as the No. 2 future totalitarian dystopia movie ever?? No f’n way! A Clockwork Orange, The Terminator, Planet of the Apes, Blade Runner, Total Recall, Outland, Soylent Green, The Fifth Element, shit, even 1984 at least had Richard Burton.

    In any case, I just read the Wiki on Middleborough and, sure enough, it falls within Barney Frank’s Congressional district. Not at all surprising. Loopy leading the loopy. Rinse, cycle, repeat.

  26. @Tsar Nicholas:

    Clockwork Orange isn’t really totalitarian, The Terminator isn’t in the future and isn’t really about the dystopia. Planet of the Apes wasn’t really totalitarian. Fifth Element is really totalitarian or dystopian.

    Soylent green is at least in the right genre, but is as remembered for Heston’s scenery chewing as anything.

    Blade Runner I will give you. Total Recall was also good, but hardly in a different class than Demolition Man.

    I also have to reflect poorly on your taste in movie when you leave out Equilibrium and The Matrix

    And of course, the hands down best movie in the genre ever: Brazil

  27. @Tsar Nicholas:

    Also, what makes you think Demoliton Man was unintentional parody?

  28. WR says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Where did I get the notion that you have nothing but the tiniest concern over this law? Hmm, could it have been this?

    “It’s not a big deal, as the Police Chief says”

    Yeah, I guess that was it.

  29. mattb says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Demolition Man is the second best future totalitarian dystopia movie ever!

    And one of the best screen adaptations of Huxley’s Brave New World.

    I also have to reflect poorly on your taste in movie when you leave out Equilibrium and The Matrix

    I’ll give you the Matrix, but beyond Gun Kata and being the first Christian Bale as bad ass movie, Equilibrium is just an overly long and not so smart adaptation of Fahrenheit 451… but Gun Kata does still kick ass.

  30. Racehorse says:

    @JKB: Those of us who have children would like to be able to go out in public without hearing this kind of trashy language everywhere we go. If people want to talk that kind of trash they are certainly free to – in their own home, bar, union hall, motorcycle hangout, swing joint, or pool hall.

  31. @Racehorse:

    Those of us without children would like to be able to go out without the entire public sphere being reduced to a nerf-padded playpen for your children.

  32. Racehorse says:

    @Stormy Dragon: When I was a child, we did not hear this trash like we do today. People had more respect and manners back then. This is not a freedom of speech issue. It is a decency issue.

  33. @Racehorse:

    When I was a child, we did not hear this trash like we do today. People had more respect and manners back then.

    Yes we certainly have trouble, I say trouble right here in River City.

  34. WR says:

    @Racehorse: Quick, count up all the mentions of “decency” in the constitution.

    We’ll wait.

  35. Racehorse says:

    @WR: When I was a child, people had more manners than to use that kind of ftrashy language around women and children. Most communities do have certain standards. I am not in favor of arresting people; the courts are tied up enough with violent, perverted criminals. But there should be some kind of consequences for that kind of filthy behavior!

  36. WR says:

    @Racehorse: Perhaps other people do not share your opinion on what constitutes icky language. Perhaps other people find what you find offensive inoffensive — and find what you consider inoffensive to be horribly offensive. Who gets the fine then? Who gets the consequences? Who gets to choose?

  37. MarkedMan says:

    To all the real lawyers on this thread: just curious – what effect would it have on a court challenge to this law that the chief of police acknowledged in public that he was only going to enforce it selectively?

  38. @WR:

    Perhaps some of us think Racehorse is suffering from a rather inaccurate recollection of how polite people were when he was a kid vs. now.

  39. James H says:

    @MarkedMan: Depends.

  40. James H says:

    @Racehorse: @Stormy Dragon

    Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers


  41. sam says:

    Incredulous Marine in Aliens when told they must give their ammo as they descend into the aliens’ lair:

    What are we supposed to use? Harsh language?

  42. WR says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I don’t think so. He probably remembers a time when all those inconvenient darker hued people were kept safely out of sight and sound. And were promptly jailed or lynched when they tried to push their way into good society.

    At least, that’s my reading based on his long history of posting here…

  43. Franklin says:

    So, WR, I’m just curious: do you believe there’s no boundaries at all? Should people just be allowed to have sex in public in front of children as well?

  44. Tlaloc says:

    But Chaplinsky was aimed at public order, not public decency. Calling a cop a “goddamned Fascist” is likely to provoke violence

    It wouldn’t if the cop in question wasn’t, you know, a “god damn fascist”…

  45. WR says:

    @Franklin: “Should people just be allowed to have sex in public in front of children as well? ”

    It would probably cause less harm than letting them see “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.”