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Profanity penalty: Ogden ordinance tries to quiet swearing in city parks

OGDEN — Players yell at umpires. Coaches yell at players. And fans yell at them all.

It happens all the time, says Jay Lowder, Ogden's director of public services. Most of the time, there's nothing wrong with that.

On occasion, such verbal exchanges have turned into physical altercations, leading to police involvement, Lowder said. And those incidents often involve profanity that city officials say isn't appropriate for city parks.

"They're getting to be more frequent," he said.

City leaders hope to curtail that behavior by making the verbal altercations that rise to the level of disturbing the peace illegal at any park or recreation facility or event owned or sponsored by the city.

As proposed, the ordinance would prohibit the use of "obscene or profane language" at city parks, if it's used in a way that disturbs the peace.

"The goal of the ordinance is try to prohibit that conduct before it reaches the level of a fight," Mara Brown, chief deputy city attorney, said.

That means conversational swearing at city parks or a recreation event wouldn't be illegal unless it escalates to a point where it disturbs others, Brown said.

Ogden resident Merrilee Blackham said she thinks the ordinance is a good idea.

"There's always a chance that parents or coaches will get a little bit too emotional," Blackham said during her 9-year-old son Jared's football practice Wednesday at Monroe Park. "When kids are involved, it's important to keep things family friendly. You don't want your kids exposed to things that are inappropriate."

Violation of the so-called "sportsmanship ordinance" would be either a class C misdemeanor or an infraction, depending on whether the offense continued after the violator was asked to stop.

Under state law, a class C misdemeanor is punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $750 fine. Those cited with an infraction would pay a fine of up to $750.

The Ogden City Council discussed the proposed ordinance during a work session last week. The council is expected to revisit the issue in the coming weeks.

"Recreation is meant to be enjoyed," Lowder said. "The problem is people who use recreation programs are competitive. That's why they're in them, for the most part. They're supposed to be having fun. Because of that competitive edge, people get excited pretty quickly."

City officials said the proposed ordinance has generated a lot of questions of if, why and how Ogden is banning profanity from its parks. The use of profanity, Brown explained, wouldn't be illegal unless the language becomes disruptive to others.

"If people are disturbing the peace or disturbing the people around them — whether it's another team, a coach or between parents — that is the behavior that we're looking at," she said.

The city already has adopted a "mutual combat" ordinance to deal with altercations when they become physical. But the law says nothing about verbal altercations.

"Right now, we can't really step in until it actually does become violent," Lowder said. "We just need to be able to keep people from going ballistic verbally and that leading to physical confrontation."

State law allows for city councils to set punishment for disturbing the peace, including "using obscene or profane language in a place or under circumstances which could cause a breach of the peace or good order of the city."

As proposed, the ordinance would provide police with a tool to deal with a disruption of the peace before it becomes violent.

"If there's a person engaged in this kind of loud and disruptive language that seems to be leading toward a fight, an official would go over and ask them to stop the behavior," Brown said.

If they disregard that warning, police would get involved, she said.

"The goal is to encourage more civility and further an atmosphere of civility at recreational events, where spectators, officials, parents can feel comfortable," Brown said.

The proposed ordinance also calls for signs to be placed at city parks to make people aware that disturbing the peace through use of profanity is a criminal offense.