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Canoeist to combat cursing conviction

The Associated Press

06.15.99

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Timothy Boomer...
Timothy Boomer

The American Civil Liberties Union says it will fight the conviction of a canoeist found guilty of violating an 1897 ban on swearing near children.

Timothy Boomer, 25, was convicted on June 11 in rural Arenac County after jurors deliberated for less than an hour.

Boomer was part of a group that had been canoeing on the Rifle River, 130 miles north of Detroit, in August 1998 when he tumbled out of his canoe and unleashed a string of profane words, according to court testimony.

He was originally charged with swearing in front of women and children, but District Judge Allen Yenior ruled before the trial that the part of the statue concerning women violated the Constitution.

The judge upheld the law as it applied minors, and an Arenac County Circuit Court judge said that he would not rule on the law unless Boomer was convicted.

ACLU officials said yesterday they would ask the circuit court to rule that Boomer's conviction clearly violated the Constitution.

"Unpleasant language is heard every day — on the streets, on the radio and television, in sports stadiums and many other places," said Kary Moss, executive director of the Michigan ACLU. "While we may not always like the ways people express themselves, it is one of the costs of living in a free society.

"The government has no business deciding whether certain language is immoral."

Richard Vollbach, the assistant Arenac County prosecutor who argued the state's case, said he expected the appeal, and his office would work to uphold Boomer's conviction.

"We've already been through that with one judge. I think the arguments will be the same," Vollbach said. "I don't think what Boomer was convicted for, the words he was convicted of using, fall within the protection of the First Amendment. And neither did the jury."

Tom Schram, public education director of the ACLU, said the Michigan law did not cover the two kinds of speech that can be banned by law — obscenities and fighting words.

While Yenior had said the words could fall under a fighting-words provision, Schram said the theory didn't work in this case because Boomer's speech was not directed at anyone in particular.

Boomer, of Roseville, faces up to 90 days in jail and a $100 fine on the misdemeanor conviction. Yenior had said he would delay sentencing Boomer until the appeals were heard, but Vollbach said that he expected the judge to set a sentencing date first.

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