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Watch what you say in Wisconsin

By The Associated Press

07.18.02

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LA CROSSE, Wis. — Robert Kissane didn't expect his rude comments to his niece's ex-boyfriend would cost him $212.

And when Roberta Parrish was handed a $95 ticket for leaving an off-color message on her ex-husband's answering machine, she asked an officer, "Well, what did I say to deserve this?"

They didn't know that Wisconsin is one of nine states with laws against public swearing or using profane language on the telephone.

Both were given disorderly conduct citations — Kissane for his comments at a convenience store/restaurant in Brockway, and Parrish for her comments on a West Bend answering machine.

The disorderly conduct statute bars "violent, abusive, indecent, profane, boisterous, unreasonably loud or otherwise disorderly conduct" when it provokes or causes a disturbance. The state law against unlawful telephone use prohibits profane language intended to frighten, intimidate, threaten, harass or offend another person.

But swearing alone isn't enough to get a citation, says La Crosse County District Attorney Scott Horne.

"It depends on context and circumstances," Horne said. "If swearing in and of itself were a crime, there would be very few of us who haven't peered out from behind bars."

The issue came up in April when the Michigan Court of Appeals overturned an 1897 state law banning cursing in front of women and children. Timothy Boomer, of Roseville, Mich., had been charged after letting loose a string of profanities in front of a family and a sheriff when his canoe overturned on a river.

The Michigan court said allowing such a law could subject a large part of the population to convictions.

But if the cussing canoeist made the comments in front of a La Crosse police officer, he could have found himself in municipal court.

La Crosse Police Chief Ed Kondracki said vulgar profanity should never be tolerated.

"From my perspective, we ought to take a strict approach to those offenses," he said, although officers are encouraged to use their discretion when deciding whether language crosses the line.

Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, said it shouldn't matter who hears the utterance.

"Free speech shouldn't be held hostage by the reaction of an audience," Ahmuty said. "It shouldn't matter what the person says or the viewpoint they express."

Related

Cussing canoeist's conviction thrown out, along with 105-year-old law
Michigan Court of Appeals rules 1897 statute barring use of vulgar language in front of women, children is unconstitutional.  04.02.02

ACLU fights Pennsylvania police on profanity arrests
Group files two lawsuits accusing Pittsburgh-area officers of violating people's free-speech rights by arresting them for swearing.  07.10.02

Court considers consequences of cussing at cops
Idaho Supreme Court to decide whether man's free-speech rights were violated when he was arrested for swearing at sheriff's detective.  09.19.02

Idaho high court reverses cop-cusser's conviction
Justices find statement Patrick Sheldon Suiter made in frustration wasn't likely to provoke violence, therefore was protected speech.  10.29.02

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