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What the $#%!? Mass. town approves $20 fine for cussing in public

June 12, 2012|By Rene Lynch

Chicago is dealing with gang warfare. New York fears that the Mexican drug cartels are worming their way into the Big Apple. And firefighters outside Fort Collins, Colo., are fighting one of the worst wildfires in state history.

But in Middleborough, Mass., one of the biggest problems facing residents is all the cussin' and carrying on in downtown city streets by youngsters. So voters this week adopted a city regulation that is the modern- day equivalent of a swear jar: People caught accosting someone with words will be fined to the tune of $20.

The rest of the nation caught wind of the tiny community's proposal this week and has been poking gentle fun of its ... quaintness.

"Amusing," pronounced one tweet. "Imagine this in #miami," said another. "What happened to free speech, [expletive deleted]," said a third.

But before you shake your head and chuckle as well, hear the other side of the story.

A Middleborough patrol officer who has been on the beat for 17 years said fed-up parents and store owners want to take back their streets from the foul-mouthed. Officer Stephen Nelson stressed that officers intend to wield the fine against those who verbally accost someone else in public. (Not someone who, say, throws out a few choice words after finding out they stepped in gum.)

"I think people get fed up with the way other people use language in public," he told The Times. Parents of young children, as well as shop owners in the downtown area, are particularly upset by the type of language that gets thrown around.

"It scares people off," the officer added.

Attorney Adam Bond, a candidate for state office representing the 12th Bristol District, agreed that Middleborough does have a problem with youths engaging in aggressive, potty-mouthed behavior. (He said he often has to shield his 7-year-old daughter from it while they're walking to the local ice cream shop.) And Bond supports cracking down on violators --  typically, he says, aimless teenagers and young adults with nothing better to do than roam the downtown streets -- lobbing expletives at one another.

But Bond told The Times he opposes the new bylaw precisely because it does not precisely spell out offending behavior.

"One man's Venus de Milo is another man's obscenity," he says. A vague bylaw is difficult to enforce, he said, setting up the likelihood of costly and time-consuming legal challenges.

Residents voted 183 to 50 in favor of the new fine on Monday night. 

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Join Rene Lynch on Google+ or Twitter. Email: rene.lynch@latimes.com


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