MIDDLEBOROUGH — The town of Middleborough’s effort to ban swearing in public has hit a roadblock, reducing plans to enforce a new bylaw to a familiar four-letter word: Don’t.
The effort to ban public profanity drew national publicity, and not a few guffaws, in June after the Middleborough Town Meeting voted to enforce a long-overlooked 1968 bylaw against swearing. The measure was brought by residents tired of excessive cursing by youths in the central business area.
But the state attorney general’s office said Tuesday that a raft of other, decades-old town bylaws on the books contain language that contradict free-speech rights and should be amended or repealed to avoid lawsuits. That could put the no-swearing bylaw on hold for a while.
“We found this new enforcement measure to be generally consistent with state and federal law,’’ said Emalie Gainey, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Martha Coakley. “However, we have determined that some of the underlying bylaws passed more than 30 years ago no longer meet constitutional standards, and those bylaws should be repealed by the town and, in the meantime, not actively enforced.”
The no-swearing bylaw, proposed by Police Chief Bruce D. Gates, eased the process by which police can use discretion to write a $20 citation, rather than having to take the case to criminal court. Gates said he recommended the changes in response to requests from residents to clamp down on public profanity.
Coakley’s office said it had issues with the words profane and obscene in the old profanity bylaw, as well as language that determined that people of “the age of discretion” were culpable. The office said those raise subjective questions of exactly what is considered obscene and how “the age of discretion” is defined.
She also found fault with two other town bylaws, a 1972 measure against the making of an “alarming or tumultuous noise” and an antiquated 1927 bylaw that prohibited throwing snowballs or playing football on a public street.
In the months since the town’s stance against profanity gained national publicity, some local residents say things have gotten a bit more polite.
Merchants like Willy and Mimi Duphily, who own Willy’s Auto Supply, say cursing is so intimidating at times that some seniors are afraid to shop downtown. On Tuesday, Willy Duphily said he was not surprised by the ruling.
“It is so typical in this country,’’ he said. “Everyone has rights that then take away the rights of us law-abiding citizens.”
Duphily said an increased police presence on the town’s main streets, including bike patrols, since the controversy erupted has helped calm things down. “That has been a positive,’’ he said.
Allin Frawley, a selectman, said his board supported the new bylaw, but said it was too soon to know what action the town would take on issues raised by Coakley’s office.
“This was a bylaw brought to Town Meeting by residents, and while we as a Board of Selectmen supported it, we certainly support the Constitution,’’ Frawley said in an interview Tuesday. “We haven’t enforced it yet, because we were waiting for the attorney general. So, we really don’t have to do anything, or we may go to Town Meeting and rescind it.”
“But it speaks to a deeper problem and not just in Middleborough,’’ he said. “People just don’t have respect for their neighbors anymore.”
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