Today in 2002: Cursing declared legal in Michigan

‘The case of the Cussing Canoeist’

Swearing in Michigan was technically illegal up until one man fought for his First Amendment right in 2002.

Timothy Boomer fell into a river in the ‘90s and reportedly “loudly uttered a stream of profanities” in the presence of women and children. Boomer was charged with a misdemeanor as cursing had been illegal in Michigan for over 100 years. In an attempt to appeal the conviction, Boomer successfully made cursing legal in Michigan.

My grandfather graces me with his wisdom from time to time, and one piece of wisdom sticks out to me in relation to this story. He told me to never stand up in a canoe. Timothy Boomer didn’t need to know not to stand up in a canoe, he just needed to know not to curse on his way into the water after falling out of his canoe.

While canoeing in the Rifle River with friends, Boomer reportedly fell out of his canoe after it hit a rock in the shallow part of the river. He swore loud enough for a family in a nearby canoe to hear him on his way into the water.

Kenneth Socia, a road patrol deputy for the Arenac County Sheriff’s Department, was on duty that day and said he heard the “vulgar language.” Witnesses testified that the river was crowded with families. Socia issued Boomer a citation for violating MCL 750.337, which stated:

This law, which was passed in 1897, made it a misdemeanor to swear in the state of Michigan.

Although Timothy’s trial judge agreed that the words used were neither obscene or “fighting words,” the judge refused to dismiss the case on constitutional grounds.

“The judge instructed the jury that Mr. Boomer’s guilt or innocence hinged on the manner in which Mr. Boomer used the word ‘f***,’” said the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan. “If the word was used as an adjective or modifier to describe the river or Mr. Boomer’s frustrating day, then it was speech protected by the First Amendment. However, if Mr. Boomer repeatedly shouted the word ‘f***’ in a manner that did not express a thought, the judge told the jury to find him guilty. The jury found Mr. Boomer guilty. His sentence was stayed pending the outcome of this appeal.”

Mr. Boomer was threatened with a jail term, a fine of $75 and a sentence of four days of community service.

The Michigan Court of Appeals heard the appeal in People v. Timothy Boomer on March 6, 2002. The defendant, Boomer, argued that “his conviction must be reversed because MCL 750.337 is facially unconstitutional on both overbreadth and vagueness grounds.”

After his four-year legal battle, Timothy Boomer celebrated his victory. He successfully reversed his conviction and struck down the 105-year-old no-cursing law.

“Here, we find it unquestionable that MCL 750.337, as drafted, reaches constitutionally protected speech, and it operates to inhibit the exercise of First Amendment rights. MCL 750.337 is an unconstitutional enactment in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution because the statute is facially vague,” reads a Michigan Court of Appeals opinion. “Therefore, because defendant’s conviction was based on the unconstitutional statute, we reverse the conviction.”

The 28-year-old computer programmer who won international renown as the “cussing canoeist” is the reason we all have swearing liberty in Michigan. Thank you, Timothy Boomer.

Below is the official opinion of the State of Michigan Court of Appeals for the People v. Boomer case.

About the Author:

Morgan is a senior at Wayne State University studying political science and communications.