main9_Muzzles_220

BRUCE GATES

A @#%&*!!! ATTEMPT TO ENFORCE PUBLIC CIVILITY

It seems almost unfair to award a Muzzle to Middleborough Police Chief Bruce Gates, given that his bad idea was approved at town meeting by an overwhelming margin of 183-50. But the town's much-mocked effort to stamp out profane language began with Gates, and so it is he who must find room on his mantel for our coveted statuette.

As you may know, Middleborough has actually reduced the penalty for swearing at someone in public by replacing a 44-year-old law making it a crime with one redefining it as a civil offense punishable by a $20 fine. But hold the applause. Gates's stated reason for seeking the change was that prosecuting such so-called crimes wasn't worth the hassle. Handing out fines is something the chief has said is much easier to do.

"I don't think they'll be used a lot," he was quoted as saying in the Boston Globe. If and when they are, though, the town is likely to face a legal challenge. The US Supreme Court has made it clear in rulings going back many decades that foul-mouthed language is protected by the First Amendment unless it would incite a reasonable person to violence.

As a result of Chief Gates's handiwork, Middleborough is something of a laughingstock, having been held up to ridicule everywhere from The View and the Wall Street Journal to the BBC and Reuters. But the fines will not actually take effect until Attorney General Martha Coakley has a chance to review the legality of the new ordinance, probably sometime this fall.

"We'll just have to use a lot of swears until then," 16-year-old AJ Arruda joked in an interview with the Enterprise of Brockton.

Meanwhile, yet another First Amendment case is unfolding in Middleborough, as the town defends itself against a complaint about a large brick cross emblazoned with the command WORSHIP that was erected on public property in 1959.

All of which means that Middleborough could be in the constitutional spotlight for some time to come.

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