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He’s been dubbed the cussing canoeist, and his swearing tirade has wiped a controversial law off one state’s books. After three years of arguing that his First Amendment rights were violated, Timothy Boomer, a 28-year-old engineer convicted of swearing in front of kids while on a canoe trip, recently convinced the Michigan Court of Appeals to strike down a 105-year-old law that bans cursing in public. Michigan v. Boomer, No. 98-1728SM (81st Dist. Ct.). Boomer, of Roseville, Mich., was convicted in 1999 for going on a swearing rampage when his canoe tipped over on the Rifle River. Within earshot were a couple, their two children and a sheriff who wrote him a ticket under an 1897 cursing law that bans swearing in front of women and children. But three years later, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Boomer’s conviction has been overturned. TOO VAGUE? The Michigan Court of Appeals unanimously declared the law unconstitutional. The court recently ruled that the statute was too vague, and that “allowing prosecution where one utters insulting language could possibly subject a vast percentage of the populace to a misdemeanor conviction.” Kary Moss, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the ACLU, said, “This ruling sent an important message to the police that they need to have more than just words that they don’t like to issue somebody a ticket. The government shouldn’t be deciding what speech is OK, and what speech isn’t.” Arenac County Assistant Prosecutor Richard Vollbach disagrees. He has filed an appeal with the Michigan Supreme Court. “The First Amendment is not absolute. There are exceptions, and when the privacy interests of others are interfered with, then sometimes their First Amendment rights are subordinated,” Vollbach said. Michigan is one of nine states in the country with a swearing law. The others are Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin. While Michigan’s canoeing incident sparked national attention, it also inspired several local cases, including a volleyball coach charged with swearing within earshot of high school students, a 17-year-old bicyclist charged with swearing at a mom and her daughter, and a man charged with cursing on a school bus. In the past, Michigan judges in Kalamazoo and Tuscola counties have declared the law unconstitutional. Vollbach said he wished the court would have used a “reasonable person standard,” that any “reasonable person” could have determined that Boomer was “vulgar and indecent.” “I don’t think you have to be a prosecutor to determine that what he did was offensive,” Vollbach said. Boomer was fined $75 and ordered to serve four days in a childcare program, but he never paid the fine or served time because his case was appealed. Under the misdemeanor statute, it was illegal for anyone to use indecent, immoral, obscene, vulgar or insulting language near children and women. The ACLU cited a number of problems with the statute, including that it criminalized speech. As part of his appeal, Vollbach plans to cite several cases involving indecent-language and vulgar-behavior statutes, including a 1984 case involving a man convicted of making obscene telephone calls. In that case, the defendant argued that the statute under which he was charged was too vague. But the appellate court ruled that it wasn’t. Vollbach said that argument can be applied to his canoe case, too.

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