You like to be vulgar? It'll cost you $500

RARITAN, N.J. — RARITAN, N.J. -- 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. And 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," says 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," says 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.


And 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," Mayor DeCicco says. "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 Mayor 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. Mayor 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."


Mr. Fenneman, from his Somerset Street store, says reporters 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 says, "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 overbroad and vague and clearly invites law enforcement officers to enforce it according to their own set of moral standards," says 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, Mr. 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's received? "Just because a law is popular," Mr. Marvin says, "doesn't mean it's constitutional."


But Mayor 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 mph, put up signs to remind drivers to stop for pedestrians, cut the curbs to make wheelchair travel easier.

When kids began loitering outside downtown stores, Mr. DeCicco won passage of a curfew for children under 17. But young adults were still congregating, the mayor says, and their shouts -- sometimes profane, sometimes downright intimidating -- weren't good for business.

Shoppers don't want to walk into a store if they have to run a gantlet of guys yelling vulgarities, he says. Soon, business slows, the store shuts down, main street has an empty storefront -- and eventually the whole business district is at risk. The taxpayers lose.

Common sense, he believes, should guide enforcement of the measure. "If you drop your purse and say, '----,' we're not coming after you." The object is to stop people from shouting expletives on the street or yelling insults at their neighbors."

He is 61, father of two, friendly as a puppy. When he drives through town, citizens wave.


In DeCicco's Tavern, housed in a brick building off Main Street, guys sit and joke and watch games on TV. When a guy drops the ball, the mayor says, someone might let loose an expletive and no one's offended. But if the talk gets crude or insulting, the offending customer is out of there.

"Look," the mayor says, "I'm not close to being a saint or religious. We didn't invent decency or morality. But the cry from the president through Congress is, 'Let's take back our streets.' Well, why did we allow them to go away in the first place?"