Residents in a town outside Boston voted to make the foul-mouthed pay fines for swearing in public.
At a town meeting, residents voted 183-50 to approve a proposal from the police chief to impose a 20 US dollar fine on public profanity.
Officials insist the proposal was not intended to censor casual or private conversations, but instead to crack down on loud, profanity-laden language used by teenagers and other young people.
“I'm really happy about it,” Mimi Duphily, a store owner and former town selectwoman, said after the vote. “I'm sure there's going to be some fallout, but I think what we did was necessary.”
Ms Duphily, who runs a car parts store, is among the merchants who wanted to take a stand against the kind of swearing that can make customers uncomfortable.
“They'll sit on the bench and yell back and forth to each other with the foulest language. It's just so inappropriate,” she said.
The measure could raise questions about constitutional free speech rights, but state law does allow towns to enforce local laws that give police the power to arrest anyone who “addresses another person with profane or obscene language” in a public place.
Matthew Segal, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said the US Supreme Court has ruled that the government cannot prohibit public speech just because it contains profanity.
The ordinance gives police discretion over whether to ticket someone if they believe the cursing ban has been violated.
Middleborough, a town of about 20,000 residents perhaps best known for its rich cranberry bogs, has had a bylaw against public profanity since 1968.
But because that bylaw essentially makes cursing a crime, it has rarely if ever been enforced, officials said, because it simply would not merit the time and expense to pursue a case through the courts.
The ordinance would decriminalise public profanity, allowing police to write tickets as they would for a traffic violation. It would also decriminalise certain types of disorderly conduct, public drinking and marijuana use, and dumping snow on a roadway.
Mr Segal praised Middleborough for reconsidering its bylaw against public profanity, but said fining people for it isn't much better.
“Police officers who never enforced the bylaw might be tempted to issue these fines, and people might end up getting fined for constitutionally protected speech,” he said.