State lawmakers weighed a bill Tuesday that would make saying the “B” word in a derogatory way an offense that could result in a $200 fine.
The bill, “An act regarding the use of offensive words,” was filed in May by Representative Daniel Hunt, a Boston Democrat who represents a swath of Dorchester.
Under the bill, anyone who “uses the word ‘bitch’ directed at another person to accost, annoy, degrade or demean the other person shall be considered to be a disorderly person,” and will be subject to a fine of up to $200. A violation “may be reported by the person to whom the offensive language was directed at or by any witness to such incident.”
The bill is one of about 70 related to criminal procedure that were before the Joint Judiciary Committee in a hearing that lasted into Tuesday evening.
Hunt told the Globe in a telephone interview that he filed the bill on behalf of a constituent under Massachusetts’ citizens’ right to free petition. According to the State Library, Massachusetts is the only state in the country that gives its citizens the right to file bills directly in its Legislature.
Hunt said this is how the bill came to be filed, though his office apparently simply forgot to check a box when it was filed noting it was done on behalf of a constituent.
Do you believe free speech matters? Tired of @massdems dictating what you can say?— MassGOP (@massgop) October 22, 2019
Judiciary Committee will be taking this up tomorrow at 1 pm.
Come on down to the State House. Rooms A1&A2. First floor. Let 'em have it. #mapoli https://t.co/afowov3IFg
Beacon Hill Democrats like @repdanhunt are fearlessly taking on the biggest problems facing the commonwealth. #mapoli pic.twitter.com/xxyECXmd6J— MassGOP (@massgop) October 21, 2019
“She e-mailed me, and it was right around filing deadline,” he said, adding that he normally receives many requests from advocates of various issues. “We’ll file it to get it in the process.”
Hunt declined to identify the constituent and would not say whether he supported the bill.
The state’s Republican Party mocked the bill in several tweets.
Hunt said he was bombarded with calls and e-mails about the issue.
“I got at least 50 phone calls today calling me a ‘bitch’ or the ‘C’ word, and I’ve also gotten probably 50 e-mails,” he said.
When asked whether that bothered him, Hunt replied that he thinks it’s “their right to express themselves to an elected official.” However, he also noted that “a lot of them are from middle America or somewhere else.”
Hunt said the bill has done one beneficial thing: It’s given many an oft-forgotten civics lesson.
“I think it’s important for people to be involved in their government one way or the other, and this has generated some attention,” he said. “So maybe that will educate people on the process and have them more engaged on other issues.”
Meanwhile, legal experts say the proposed measure would almost certainly fail in court.
“It’s almost clearly unconstitutional,” said Kent Greenfield, a Boston College law professor who specializes in free speech. “The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled in a bunch of cases that very offensive, very hurtful speech is nevertheless protected.”
Greenfield cited such court cases as Snyder v. Phelps, in which Westboro Baptist Church followers would picket at military funerals with signs like “God Hates the USA.” The Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that the speech was protected.
Material from the State House News Service was used in this report.