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Jury to decide if cursing will send canoeist up a creek

The Associated Press

06.10.99

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Timothy Boomer ...
Timothy Boomer Jr.

STANDISH, Mich. — A jury was selected today in the trial of Timothy Boomer — who, if he had a better sense of balance, might not be in this kind of hot water.

There he was, paddling along in a canoe for the first time, when he struck a rock and was unceremoniously dumped into the Rifle River.

What he subsequently hollered that day last summer is now the subject of a criminal trial that pits free-speech advocates against prosecutors who want to limit public use of offensive language.

A sheriff's deputy said he heard Boomer explode in a barrage of profanity, loud enough to be heard a quarter-mile away. Within earshot was Tammy Smith, 32, who was canoeing with husband Michael, 32, her 5-year-old son, Casey, and her 2-year-old daughter, Samantha.

A jury of four women and three men was selected this morning. One panelist will serve as an alternate. Opening statements were to begin after lunch.

Defense lawyer William Street asked potential jurors if they were uncomfortable with foul language, "including the f-word in all its glory."

Most people said they ignore bad language, or leave if possible.

Boomer was charged with violating a 102-year-old Michigan law that makes cursing in the presence of women and children punishable with up to 90 days in jail or a $100 fine.

"So many people think that morals and respect for each other don't matter any more," says Ladd White, who runs a canoe shop along the river. "That's been the downfall of societies in the past. Maybe this will send a message that morality does matter."

Boomer, a 25-year-old auto supply worker from the Detroit suburb of Roseville, was with friends on the winding, tree-lined river about 130 miles north of Detroit when his canoe hit the rock.

After tumbling out, Boomer admits he let off steam, but denies he used the four-letter obscenities that police allege.

Prosecutor Richard Vollbach says the case involves no lofty constitutional issues. Instead, he says, it's a simple matter of disorderly conduct.

"He went on a three-minute profanity tirade in front of a 2-year-old girl and a 5-year-old boy," Vollbach said. "The mother literally covered the ears of her daughter."

Boomer refuses to repeat the words he used, but insists they've been exaggerated. He said he didn't see anyone but his friends and that his shouts were in jest.

"I never asked for any of this," Boomer said earlier this year. "But I decided to fight this law because ... I just believe it's a violation of freedom of speech."

Street, handling the case on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, says the 1897 law is rarely enforced because police know it is unconstitutional.

"We're talking about criminalizing ordinary, day-to-day speech - language that just about everybody in the country has used personally from time to time," he said.

Boomer won a partial victory when Allen Yenior, the judge presiding over the trial, ruled in February that the 1897 prohibition on cursing in front of women violated the equal protection clause.

But Yenior upheld the law as it pertains to children, saying Boomer's alleged expletives could be considered "fighting words," which the courts have ruled lack constitutional protection.

The 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 canoed down the Rifle River, but don't ask me to swear to it," says one T-shirt in town, fetching $12.49. Says another: "Talk dirty to me, but not on the Rifle River."

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