Note: This article contains explicit language.
If it’s not safe for work, is it safe to display on a boardwalk that is trying to attract young families?
Walking the boardwalk in Seaside Heights provides a glimpse into many sights, most of them beautiful: the dunes, the ocean, the Sky Ride, the Frog Bog and rollercoasters. But amidst all of the bright colors, there are altars to society’s modern vulgarities, from rather benign silliness (a “Future MILF” tee shirt) to political divisiveness (a “F*ck Joe Biden” beach towel) to overt sexual explicitness (skin-tight female shorts adorned with the phrase, “Shut Up and F*ck Me” on the buttocks).
The escalating rudeness and foul nature of some of the items on display has caught the attention of both residents and officials who have spent the better part of the last decade trying to help the borough shed the hard-partying image created by MTV’s “Jersey Shore” in favor of a more traditional family resort crowd. In most cases, the strategy has worked, prompting seedy motels to be replaced with homes and troubled nightclubs shutting down in anticipation of new higher-end, mixed-use development. But along the boardwalk, the decidedly low-brow merchandise that has seemingly been around for years remains – and it’s not good for the town’s image, some say.
“I’m seeing more shirts and caps that have a lot of profanity on it,” said resident Dave Witherspoon, a retired attorney, at a meeting of the borough council last week.
Thinking back to the constitutional law classes he once took, Witherspoon spoke of a 1971 Supreme Court case in which justices ruled that it was one’s right to wear a shirt emblazoned with the rallying cry, “Fuck the Draft,” in reference to the Vietnam War, in a court house. But the court did not provide unlimited latitude in the realm of public obscenity.
“You can wear those shirts, but there is a limit on selling it in public,” Witherspoon said. “I think the council may want to consider, if you’ve never done so, thinking about what you want your vendors to be able to sell.”
Seaside Heights has battled these issues for decades, according to Mayor Anthony Vaz, who retold a story of beloved former mayor George Tompkins personally being angered to such an extent that he knocked down a rack of clothes with vulgar sayings on the boardwalk.
“If I did that today, maybe you’d all chip in and bail me out, but I’d be going to jail,” he said.
Likewise, Borough Attorney Jean Cipriani urged caution on the part of any official who favored taking action on the matter.
Courts have differed in their interpretations of the constitutionality of obscenity in the public square. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that a clothing designer should be able to trademark a brand named “FUCT” despite its initial rejection by the federal government. In Brick Township, New Jersey courts once blocked the township’s effort to shut down an adult bookstore that was located across the street from an elementary school. But just last year, the town of Punta Gorda, Fla. adopted an ordinance that fully bars the display of vulgar language on signs, clothing and other items in public view.
But while there is an open question as to whether the municipal government could unilaterally restrict the sale or display of such clothing, there is little disagreement as to whether the long line of stores selling the explicit merchandise fly in the face of the family-friendly atmosphere officials have tried to foster.
“Even New Jersey license plates, there are concerns about the vulgarities,” said Vaz.
Witherspoon suggested the council consider adopting an ordinance that precludes “selling obscenity to minors” with a penalty for businesses that violate it.
Shorebeat took a stroll on the boardwalk last week, visiting four stores. In two, the owners were not present, another declined to comment, and one spoke on the condition his name would not be printed.
“This is how it’s been for years,” the man, a store manager, said. “I don’t think it’s going away. People seem to like all of that stuff.”
The council did not take any action, but Vaz agreed to write a letter to store owners requesting that they consider placing items with vulgar sayings out of view of passersby on the boardwalk.
“I’m going to write a letter under my name and ask those vendors that are really in deep with this, if they would give consideration to our community and where we’re going,” Vaz said. “We’re seeing it, slowly-but-surely, [attracting] more families, and we want that to continue.”
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