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No-cursing law violates free speech

A Michigan appeals court struck down a 105-year-old law against using vulgar language in front of women and children, throwing out the conviction of a canoeist who let loose a stream of curses after falling into the water.

The court ruled in favor of Timothy Boomer, who was found guilty in 1999 for swearing after tumbling into Rifle River. He was fined $75 and ordered to work four days in a child-care program. The sentence was put on hold during appeals.

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Enacted in 1897 and slightly reworded in 1931, the law says anyone using "indecent, immoral, obscene, vulgar or insulting language in the presence or hearing of any woman or child shall be guilty of a misdemeanor." The appeals panel said the statute was too vague and violated free speech. A judge deemed the ban on cursing in front of women unconstitutional, but left the provision on children intact.

Mr. Boomer was canoeing with friends in August 1998 when his canoe struck a rock. A man who was in a nearby boat with his wife and two young children testified that Boomer yelled curses for several minutes as they hurried away.

Boomer, who said many people still know him as the "cussing canoeist," is taking no chances, even after his legal victory. "I'm a little more careful about what I say in public these days," he said. "I don't think I'll ever live it down completely."


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