The city leaders of Raritan, N.J., are poised to vote on an amendment to the disorderly conduct law that would restrict public profanity and rude language - a measure the American Civil Liberties Union says is unconstitutional.
Daniel Jaxel, borough administrator, recently said the action is aimed "at protecting our downtown Main Street area, which is a very nice area, which we would like to stay that way."Raritan is a quiet bedroom community in central New Jersey, about 30 miles southwest of New York City.
The amendment would prohibit anyone from "assembling to engage in noisy, rude or indecent behavior, by using profane, vulgar or indecent language by making insulting remarks or comments to others" in public.
Jaxel said the council members do not want to curtail the free speech rights of individuals who benignly utter curses or insults; instead they are targeting people who harass others or groups of teenagers who get rowdy on street corners.
"It's designed to protect the person who leaves a restaurant and begins hearing taunts from juveniles or cussing. It was not intended for a person who drops something and states an expletive," he said.
Jaxel said the ordinance is expected to pass, despite the ACLU's opposition. The seven-member City Council will hold a public hearing and vote Tuesday.
Marcia Wenk, legal director for the ACLU of New Jersey, said the legislation is so vague it could be used against anyone using foul or offensive language.
"We think much of it is unconstitutional. The parts that cover disorderly conduct are already covered by state law, which would preempt the municipality's attempt to legislate in the same area," she said.
"But the rest of the ordinance encompasses far more protected speech than it may under the constitution. There is much speech that may be rude but is nonetheless protected under the First Amendment."
Wenk said that if the City Council enacts and enforces the measure, the ACLU will step in and bring the matter to the courts. She said a 1971 U.S. Supreme Court case upheld the free speech rights of a man who wore a jacket emblazoned with profanity into a courtroom despite a similar ordinance.