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THE NATION

'Cussing Canoeist' Law Overturned

April 02, 2002|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sheriff Jim Mosciski is dismayed. He is newly free to express that emotion by cursing. But the freedom only makes him angrier.

Mosciski, the sheriff of rural Arenac County in northern Michigan, was a big fan of a 105-year-old state law barring the use of vulgar language in front of women and children.

A state appeals court Monday struck down the law, saying it trampled on free speech rights. In the process, the judges dismissed a ticket a Mosciski sheriff's deputy handed a cussing canoeist in 1998.

The canoeist, a young man named Timothy Boomer, admitted letting out a few curse words after capsizing into the Rifle River during an outing with friends. When his buddies began hooting, he let out a few more. They laughed louder. He cursed louder. It became a game: "It was just clean fun," he said.

But a sheriff's deputy patrolling the river disagreed. Noticing a woman in a nearby canoe trying to shield her toddler's ears, the deputy wrote Boomer up for violating a Michigan statute making it a misdemeanor to use "indecent, immoral, obscene, vulgar or insulting language" in front of women or children.

Boomer was fined $75 and ordered to work four days in a child-care program. Incensed, he appealed. On Monday, he was vindicated.

The three-judge panel unanimously declared that the law was unconstitutional. They wrote that it would be "difficult to conceive of a statute that would be more vague." They added: "Allowing a prosecution where one utters 'insulting' language could possibly subject a vast percentage of the populace to a misdemeanor conviction."

Sheriff Mosciski begs to differ.

"It was a good law. They should have left it alone," he said glumly. "What gives a person the right to use that type of language around young children?"

Boomer's lawyer answers that query in three words: the 1st Amendment. "The government can't act as the speech police and prosecute someone for using certain language just because someone else got offended," said William Street of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The way Mosciski sees it, the paramount principle is personal responsibility: Adults should act like adults and watch their language. If it takes a law to keep them in line, then there ought to be a law.

"Freedom of speech?" Mosciski said, "I don't buy it."

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