The Town Council approved the measure this week in an effort to preserve Ocean City's reputation as a destination for families with children. It follows efforts by nearby beach towns to crack down on drooping pants and public urination. And it could be followed by a ban on smoking on Ocean City beaches later this year.
"Our goal is to attract families," said Ocean City Councilman Brent Ashley. "Families, when they're walking the boardwalk, don't want to hear foul language."
The gentle reminders do not carry the force of law. No one will be locked up for letting an F-bomb fly at the beach — that would be an infringement on the freedom of speech, city leaders say.
"Will it solve the problem of profanity 100 percent? No," said Meehan. "But will it make it better? We hope so. Sometimes you can address one thing and it can have a life of its own and carry on to other things."
Councilwoman Mary Knight said she proposed the measure earlier this year at the request of two hoteliers who had spotted similar signs in Virginia Beach.
"During June, we're a play-date destination for future leaders of America, or, in other words, recent high school graduates," she said. "But we also have families here with young children."
Knight said she hoped the signs would "set a tone" on the boardwalk.
"You hear bad language all the time," she said, noting that actress Sandra Bullock let a choice word slip during her acceptance speech at the Critics' Choice Movie Awards. "I don't want to pick on any particular group of folks."
Ashley said that he has been hearing more foul language in recent years as he takes his daily strolls.
"I've noticed more profanity being used on the boardwalk. I've noticed more characters and less families," he said. "I think the whole council has noticed it and we're trying to reshape our image."
Ashley pointed out that Ocean City is hardly the only beach town looking to preserve its wholesome image.
Virginia Beach rolled out a public decency campaign more than a decade ago that calls for people to avoid public drunkenness, overt sexual behavior and cursing, among other indiscretions.
Wildwood, N.J., banned sagging pants on the boardwalk last year, imposing a $200 fine or 40 hours of community service for those whose trousers hang more than three inches below the hips. The town also banned walking barefoot or shirtless on the boardwalk in the evening.
And Dewey Beach raised the fine for public urination from $85 to $200 late last year.
Kelly Haden Farrington, a Hampstead office manager, said she is more troubled by offensive T-shirts than overhearing profanity when she takes her three school-age children to the boardwalk.
"The T-shirt shops are pretty gross," said Farrington. "Always something vulgar right there out front. Makes it difficult when you have kids that can read."
Farrington said she couldn't recall hearing foul language on the boardwalk.
Meehan said that stores, too, have a right to freedom of speech. While the town cannot bar stores from selling risque T-shirts, he has asked retailers to move offensive wares to the backs of their shops.
"A few years ago when I became mayor, I walked down the boardwalk and talked to every owner," he said. Meehan said stores have become "significantly better" about keeping such shirts away from the eyes of casual passersby.
Ocean City has had to walk a fine line when it comes to the First Amendment. Two years ago, the town dropped rules that restricted street performers after a spray-paint artist argued in federal court that permit requirements stepped on his constitutional rights.
Meehan said that profanity is not the only thing he's looking to curb at the beach this season.
He and the council will be taking up the issue next month of a possible smoking ban on the beach and boardwalk. The ban was first proposed during a strategic planning session for the town last year and is a "priority issue" for city leaders, he said.
"You see it happening in other areas," Meehan said. "We all recognize the dangers of smoking, secondhand smoke and the environmental consequences of cigarette butts on our beaches."