'Cussing Canoeist' Trial Opens Thursday

June 8, 1999 12:00 am

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Tuesday, June 8, 1999

DETROIT — Timothy Boomer, Michigan’s celebrated “cussing canoeist,” goes on trial Thursday in Arenac County for using improper language in the presence of children. The free speech case has drawn international attention.

Boomer, 25, of the Detroit suburb of Roseville, faces a jail sentence of up to 90 days for cursing aloud after falling from his canoe last August in the Rifle River in mid-Michigan. He is being prosecuted under a 102 year-old statute and defended by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.

The trial, in front of 81st District Judge Allen C. Yenoir, is expected to take two days. News reporters from as far away as England and South Africa have descended on Michigan to cover the case. Court TV plans to televise the trial gavel-to-gavel on its nationwide cable network.

Two other Michigan counties have thrown out the law, but it has never been tested on a state-wide level.

Earlier this year, the ACLU was unsuccessful in an attempt to have the statute declared unconstitutional, and the case was ordered to proceed to the trial stage. If Boomer is convicted, the ACLU will appeal the constitutionality of the statute.

“The prosecution of Mr. Boomer for any expletives he uttered is ridiculous,” said ACLU Executive Director Kary L. Moss. “What’s next? Will we start prosecuting parents who get overexcited at Little League games?”

“The use of law-enforcement resources in this way is a waste of taxpayer money,” she added. “It’s only in countries like Iran where we expect to see this type of speech police in this day and age.”

Boomer and nine friends were canoeing on the Rifle River near Midland on August 15 when his canoe hit a rock in the river and overturned. According to the police report, Boomer uttered a series of expletives which were heard by a local resident, Tammy Smith, and her two young children, who were standing on the bank a quarter of a mile downriver, out of the sight of Boomer and his friends.

When the canoeing party reached the bank where Smith stood, they were met by a police officer who issued the ticket. The officer has since left the Arenac County Sheriff’s Department after being convicted of domestic violence.

Boomer, a computer programmer who has no legal record, has apologized for his outburst, saying that he had no way of knowing that there would be children near the remote area where the canoe overturned and that he was sorry if his language was found offensive.

The First Amendment does not protect speech that is obscene in a sexually provocative sense or when it constitutes “fighting words.”

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