It’s been only four months since this town decided to light a small candle against the dark cloud of incivility that it saw settling over the land. Though radio talk-show hosts around the country laughed and the local police chief objected, some people say Raritan already seems a little nicer since the town banned cursing.
“It’s in your subconscious,” said Mike Fenneman, proprietor of II Brothers Italian Delicatessen on Somerset Street, the town’s main thoroughfare. “Even if I’m out on the sidewalk and I’m talking, getting a little carried away, people say, ‘Hey, watch your language.’ It’s nice.”
“At times it was a problem,” said Carol Rivella, standing behind the counter of the Raritan Bakery. “I don’t hear any more foul language.”
No longer are vulgarity, indecent language or even insulting remarks to be tolerated in this blue-collar, central New Jersey town of 5,800. Yell, “Hey, Fatso,” and you could face a $500 fine and up to three months in jail.
Anthony DeCicco, Raritan’s earnest, affable Republican mayor, says he doesn’t understand why anyone would consider the new ordinance controversial.
“We’re just asking you to be polite,” DeCicco said. “That’s all we’re doing.”
Cursing has been illegal in Raritan since October, when the borough council amended the town’s disorderly conduct ordinance to take a stand against the daily assault of insults, offensive language and just plain bad manners that Americans seem to confront everywhere.
And then the town found it was the butt of national jokes.
Ha ha ha. Raritan: the town with the Cursing Cops; the city you can’t even call a hell of a city; the borough where you have to remember to say nothing stronger than, “Oh, fudge.”
There were serious objections as well: The American Civil Liberties Union warned that the ordinance trampled First Amendment rights. The Raritan police chief said it was unconstitutional and he wouldn’t enforce it.
But DeCicco--four years in the Marine Corps, 40 years running a tavern--is not swayed. “They say maybe there’s too much government intrusion. But there are times when you have to take stands.”
And despite the jokes, many people around the country applauded. DeCicco pulls folders filled with letters from his desk.
From Murfreesboro, Tenn.: “We need more good people like you.”
From Arvada, Colo.: “I think it’s great that you are standing against the filth of language that we hear every day.”
From Pepin, Wis.: “If I could move, I would, to Raritan.”
Fenneman, from his Somerset Street store, says reporters and photographers besieged Raritan for days when the law was passed. He thinks the national interest goes beyond sheer curiosity. “Most of the country is more conservative Republican than they want to admit. They all believe in the old-fashioned values.”
Police Chief Joseph Sferra, however, will have no part of it. “If someone comes into the Borough of Raritan cursing and using foul language,” he said, “we will deal with it like we’ve been dealing with it in my 30 years here: We’ll use constitutionally sound statutes.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey would be interested in a court challenge--if anyone is ever charged under the ordinance.
“The law is over-broad and vague and clearly invites law enforcement officers to enforce it according to their own set of moral standards,” said Bruce Marvin, an ACLU staff attorney in Newark. “What’s offensive to one person might not be offensive to another.”
He says the ordinance “has a chilling effect on free speech, in that people engaged in, say, political speech could be concerned they’ve crossed the boundaries and engage in self-censorship. It threatens the whole theory behind freedom of speech.”
Because the law applies to public and private places, Marvin says, citizens also could be charged for using bad language within their homes--thus violating the right to privacy as well as free speech.
And what of all the support the mayor has received? “Just because a law is popular,” Marvin said, “doesn’t mean it’s constitutional.”
But DeCicco doesn’t see where he’s violated any precious freedoms. “In the Constitution nowhere does it say that you can swear and be vulgar.”
The debate all started with his efforts to preserve Main Street, six tidy blocks of shops, restaurants and churches in a town of wood-frame houses. The council lowered the speed limit to 25 m.p.h., put up signs to remind drivers to stop for pedestrians, cut the curbs to make wheelchair travel easier.
When kids began loitering outside downtown convenience stores, DeCicco won passage of a curfew for children under 17. But young adults were still congregating, the mayor said, and their shouts--sometimes profane, sometimes downright intimidating--weren’t good for business.