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Cursing up a storm in Middleborough

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If George Carlin could speak from the other side, he’d probably have some choice words for the good citizens of Middleborough, Massachusetts. Middleborough town meeting recently voted to levy a $20 fine against people who use profanity in public. One town resident invoked Carlin’s famous routine about the “seven words you can never say on television,” noting that between movies and cable TV “it’s kind of hard to define exactly what’s obscene.”

The move by Middleborough actually decriminalized an existing bylaw against swearing that had not been enforced because it required formal prosecution. The new approach is causing a stir because police might actually begin enforcing the ban since they can now issue a $20 civil citation rather than arrest offending cursers.

Most cities and towns in the Bay State could close budget gaps with by fining people who take cursing to the next level. Middleborough Police Chief Bruce Gates didn’t specify what types of swearing would merit a fine, but negative reactions to Red Sox losses seems to have been ruled out.

Unfortunately, the well-intentioned effort to take back the center of town from foul-mouth types who detract from a family-friendly atmosphere may create more problems than it solves.There is the not so small matter of First Amendment-protected speech. Though the US Supreme Court has ruled speech must be protected even if offensive, speech that disturbs the peace by provoking a fight or other disorderly conduct is another matter.

Regulating offensive public behavior that doesn’t stray into criminal territory has always been a tough call. Mostly overlooked in Middleborough furor over cursing were several new fines aimed at public behavior. People can now be ticketed for disorderly conduct ($20 or $50); throwing snow or ice into the street ($50); and public consumption of alcohol ($50) or marijuana ($300).

Society’s shifting mores on behavior like cursing makes these calls even tougher. Outbursts that would have elicited gasps even a generation ago are just normal parts of speech for some people today.

Middleborough isn’t the first place on the planet to try and get people to cleanup their potty mouths, but it’s letting potential violators off easy. A small town in northern England decided to hand out fines well north of $100 for one month last summer. Three Australian states, New South Wales, Queensland, and Victoria, have anti-swearing laws on the books.

Last year, Victoria (population 5.6 million) began to levy fines of about $240 on people who swear in public. Robert Clark, the state’s attorney general, explained that the move would “free up police resources” by enabling police to issue  ”on-the-spot” fines.  He also offered up a view that would resonate with Middleborough town meeting members. "It will also enable [police] to more effectively act against the sort of loud-mouthed, obnoxious behavior that can make going out to public places unpleasant for other members of the public,” he said.

During a 2009-2010 trial run of the measure, police in Victoria fined nearly 800 people for bad language. Some Australian legal experts have raised questions about inconsistent application of the law, since what one police officer deems offensive may not seem so bad to another.

How police officers in a Massachusetts town of more than 20,000 determine what crosses the line and how much time they spend determining that remains to be seen. But it could be worse. After the third offense in Victoria, a violator is subject to six months imprisonment.

                                                                                                                                                    --GABRIELLE GURLEY


BEACON HILL

Gov. Deval Patrick hopes to work out a gaming compact with the Mashpee Wampanoag by next week. The agreement would then go to the Legislature.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Peabody is joining the state’s Group Insurance Commission and expects to save $3 million to $5 million a year, the Salem News reports.

The Fall River City Council is insisting the School Committee submit its budget with names, positions, and salaries of school employees included, similar to what is done with the municipal budget.

The New Bedford City Council is questioning the jump in staffing and salaries in the mayor’s office while other city departments are treading water.

Plainville forms a local committee to weigh slot machine gambling.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

A former aide to ex-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords wins a special election to replace her, the Arizona Republic reports.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg launches a $9 million mayor’s challenge, an initiative to drive innovation in addressing urban issues, the Wall Street Journal reports.

ELECTION 2012

US Rep. John Tierney takes heat from in a Salem News editorial for voting to preserve a tax on medical devices.

The Herald’s Joe Battenfeld pushes back on the Vicki Kennedy debate invitation to the man who replaced her husband.

Massachusetts is leading the nation -- as a recipient of presidential campaign spending, the Globe reports.

Michael Novak says in the National Review that the Catholic vote is a key to November’s election if the GOP can keep President Obama from getting higher than 52 percent of the religious demographic.

American Spectator senior editor Quin Hillyer lists his top six picks for Mitt Romney’s running mate and, despite a fetching photo of New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte accompanying the piece, doesn’t include her.

Keller@Large says Elizabeth Warren stepped outside her comfort zone by bringing her message of market reform to the South Shore Chamber of Commerce.

The Justice Department sues Florida over a purge of mostly Hispanic voters from the state’s rolls. State officials say they’ve uncovered 52 non-citizen voters, but the state’s list of allegedly fraudulent voter registrations also targeted, among others, a US-born World War II veteran.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Chris Byers says he plans to announce by the end of the month whether his proposed movie and TV studio facility at Devens will go forward. The Lowell Sun reports it’s a go.

Like the swallows to Capistrano....McGrory is back on the Liberty Mutual beat. We were almost starting to suffer withdrawal symptoms.

The Republican says that it makes good sense for Massachusetts and Connecticut to jointly promote the “Knowledge Corridor.

EDUCATION

The University of Massachusetts School of Law -- Dartmouth won provisional accreditation from the American Bar Association, meaning its graduates can sit for the bar exam in all 50 states.

A KIPP charter school student from Lynn was left alone while other students and teachers went zip lining on a field trip in West Virginia, the Item reports.

Brockton school officials are racing to finalize the budget before the end of the school year to stave off 100 teacher layoffs as well as save money on unemployment costs.
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HEALTH CARE

A steep rise in health care costs is projected, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The Vatican gives its OK for Lowell General Hospital to acquire Saints Medical Center, the Sun reports

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch offered financial assistance to residents whose homes were damaged by severe flooding earlier this month because he said the city was at fault when workers failed to close the tide gates at Blacks Creek in time to prevent the flooding.

If Falmouth decides to take its wind turbines offline, it won’t come cheap.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Catherine Greig, professing love for Whitey Bulger to the end, is sentenced to eight years, NECN reports. Greig’s former nephew, whose father was allegedly murdered by Bulger, was among the victims speaking at the sentencing.

A judge rules the brother-in-law of US Rep. John Tierney must forfeit $7.7 million in proceeds from an illegal gambling ring, the Salem News reports.

Rudy Giuliani offers a tribute in City Journal to the late James Q. Wilson and the contribution of his “broken windows” theory to the pronounced drop in crime in New York.  The only problem: As UCLA  criminologist Mark Kleiman outlines in this video conversation with CommonWealth’s Michael Jonas, there is actually very little evidence for a direct link between application of the broken windows model and a decrease in serious crime.

Two websites are posting the names of men who allegedly abused or failed to pay prostitutes, but there are some indications the information is phony, the Eagle-Tribune reports.

Two Lowell police officers say they are being ostracized by their union for helping to implement a GPS system that will be used to track cruisers and other police vehicles, the Sun reports.

MEDIA

A group of Pembroke residents angered by the decision to shut down the town’s public access television studio and merge with Plymouth’s nonprofit public access has sent a complaint to the attorney general asking her to investigate.

Whew! Boston didn’t make the list of 15 most bedbug-infested cities.

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