Why The @%#&*! Is the ACLU Defending the Cussing Canoeist?

June 3, 1999 12:00 am

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STANDISH, MI – When Timothy J. Boomer fell into a Michigan river and yelled profanities while canoeing last year, he violated a 102-year-old state law that bans swearing in front of women and children.

What he said then will be the subject of a criminal trial, which will pit free-speech advocates against local prosecutors who want to limit public use of offensive language, said The New York Times. The trial is scheduled to start next week.

According to the Times, the heavily publicized prosecution already seems to be prompting the police in other Michigan cities to enforce the statute, which carries a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and a $100 fine.

The Boomer case has been featured on national television and radio talk shows, stirring excitement in Standish, a town of 1,300 people, 125 miles northwest of Detroit.

“I don’t think there’s anybody in the United States who hasn’t heard of this case,” Jack L. Stoner, the town’s part-time mayor told the Times as he smoked a cigar in his laundromat.

The American Civil Liberties Union has given the case national prominence by providing free legal advice to Boomer, making him available to news organizations for interviews and promising to keep appealing rulings against him to as high a court as necessary to win.

“If successful, the state will effectively criminalize speech which is heard every day on television and the streets — it’s trying to legislate morality,” Kary L. Moss, Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan told the paper. “The police should use disorderly conduct statutes instead.”

Boomer’s jury trial will be the first involving the obscure law, said William T. Street, a longtime ACLU member who has volunteered to represent Boomer. In allowing the trial to proceed, District Court Judge Allen Yenior ruled in February that though the part of the law regarding use of expletives in front of women may not be constitutional, the law’s provisions regarding use of obscenities in front of children are justifiable because they protect minors.

According to the Times, judges in at least two other Michigan counties have dismissed cases involving the law after deciding that it was unconstitutional, but those decisions have not set binding precedents.

A handful of other people accused over the years of breaking the law here and in Sault Ste. Marie have paid small fines, typically about $25, without contesting the misdemeanor charge, said county prosecutor Richard E. Vollbach, who is charged Boomer, and Farrell E. Elliott, county prosecutor in Sault Ste. Marie.

In a conservative town where the biggest employer is a maximum-security state prison, the Times reported that most people seemed to share the views of Stoner, the part-time mayor. “I understand about free speech, but there should be some common sense about what you say around other people,” the mayor said. “I don’t allow dirty songs on my juke box.”

Stoner, 68, told the paper that people should always speak as if in church, but later acknowledged that his own conduct did not always meet that test.

“I swear, but I kind of watch where I do it,” he said. “If you’re around a bunch of guys, that’s different from when you’re in mixed company.”

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