Asbury Park Press
HAZLET – Anthony Ragusa is no fan of Joe Biden.
The profane signs and banners he posted all over his Holmdel Avenue property, including one declaring “F— Joe Biden” and another that “Biden S—-,” make it abundantly clear.
“I don’t like him, he is not a good president, and I don’t really think he is fit,” the 27-year-old Ragusa said.
But township officials, police and some residents have not appreciated his, uh, succinct messaging. They responded with calls for removal of the profane signs. A directive from a code officer gave Ragusa 10 days to act, citing the township’s nuisance law.
And a missive from a purported neighbor, shared with the Press, objected to the signs while sticking with their tenor, asking who the (expletive deleted) Ragusa thought he was putting up such profane messages in the first place.
“A complaint was received that two of the flags/banners located on your front lawn have offensive language,” a June 17 letter from Hazlet Township Code Enforcement stated. “High visibility to school age children and motorists. Please remove the offensive signs.”
The letter from Assistant Code Enforcement Officer Francis Finnerty, shared with the press, warned that the nuisance ordinance gave Ragusa “10 days to abate this violation so that further action will not be necessary,” though legal experts cast doubt on whether the township could backup the threat.
Finnerty declined to comment on the dispute, another marker in political discourse 2021, where the coarse and profane continue to reset norms wherever opposing views meet up — in debates, community forums, social media and, increasingly, on neighbors’ front lawns.
Elsewhere in New Jersey, a Bergan County man drew complaints in March for a “F— Biden” flag, while a Union County woman faced local government fines for profane images on her land.
Similar incidents have been reported from Long Beach, New York, to Silver City, New Mexico, prompting fresh tutorials on the First Amendment.
At issue, typically, are banners with profane messages about political leaders and causes. Many are sold online and feature a range of epithets. Some target former President Donald Trump; most take aim, as Ragusa does, at President Biden.
According to constitutional lawyers, the First Amendment gives a wide berth to property owners expressing their views in signage on their own property, even in profane terms. But the right isn’t absolute.
Professor Thomas Healy, a First Amendment expert at Seton Hall University Law School, said the nuisance ordinance cited by Hazlet doesn’t give the officials the power to force Ragusa to remove the signs.
“This is a general nuisance ordinance that is designed to protect your ability to live in your home without having to deal with nuisances from your neighbors. It is mostly addressed to conduct, not speech,” he said.
“But they are trying to use this regulation of conduct to restrict his speech … if they are trying to prohibit his speech because of his message, then that is most certainly unconstitutional,” Healy said.
Ragusa claims he only meant to put the signs up temporarily when they were first went up in early May.
“I was going to keep them up for a month and I didn’t want them on my property forever, just to get my message across and show my political views and support my side of the spectrum,” said Ragusa, a four-year township resident who lives alone.
“I feel like there is so much open speech on the left that I feel like my voice should have been heard.”
He’s received a mix of reactions.
“I have people pulling into my driveway and taking pictures with me and shaking my hand,” Ragusa said. “I had one guy say his mother didn’t like it, but I told him I was sorry for that.”
Mayor Tara Clark, who lives one street over from Ragusa, said the township received at least a half-dozen complaints via phone and email from residents.
“I listened to what they had to say and what I found was that none of the residents had an issue with the political signs, they had an issue with profanity,” she said. “They were concerned and asked if we could intervene and ask him to take down the profane sign. It was that one sign because of that word.”
But Clark stressed that she understood Ragusa had the right to post the signs even if others objected: “I was clear to say that free speech is protected under the Constitution and the language on signs is protected.
“Although they were upset, his rights were protected, but we said we would reach out to him in the spirit of neighborliness if it was possible not to have the profane sign up.”
In 2019, an Asbury Park man was asked to remove some anti-Trump signs that included profanity and what city officials deemed offensive images. He complied without any legal action being taken.
Ragusa, who told the Press he voted for Trump, said he received an anonymous letter, postmarked June 9 from Trenton, that was “threatening and stalker-ish.”
“I respect your right to voice your opinion but not on my public streets in my community that I sacrificed my life to defend,” the typed letter stated. “Who the f— do you think you are displaying such trash for the world to see.”
The letter later hinted at future trouble, prompting Ragusa to file a complaint with Hazlet police June 10. Almost a week later, on June 16, Ragusa said police reached out to him but with a request that he remove the signs.
The officer “asked what was going on and if I planned on taking it down and he mentioned a city ordinance,” Ragusa recalls about the call from Hazlet Police. “I said that is incorrect and I told him there are plenty of Supreme Court cases that favor free speech over ordinances and you are censoring what is said.”
When the officer mentioned the signs had drawn complaints from parents and residents, Ragusa responded: “I respect that but other people’s kids are not my issue. I know it is hard because I am on a main road, but it is my right.”
Police did not respond to a request for comment.
When the code enforcement letter arrived the next day, Ragusa said he phoned Finnerty back and agreed to meet. “I said I am not going to respond to threats with 10 days,” Ragusa said. “But if you want to talk about it I am glad to do so.”
Ragusa said Finnerty called back on Monday and asked to meet at Ragusa’s home. “I said I am ready to go to court with you guys, but I am reasonable,” Ragusa recalled.
According to Ragusa, Finnerty requested that all the signs be removed. Ragusa said he declined, but agreed to remove the “F— Biden” banner, and did so that day.
“I was willing to out of respect for children to remove the ones that say ‘f—,’ he said. “But I am going to put others in its place. I will refrain from curse words, but as far as I am concerned none of this is your legal right to take it away. I get to decide what I have.”
Several neighbors reached by the Press declined to comment.
Ragusa said his signs were not so much an angry reaction to Biden but a response to what he feels is censorship of conservative views, especially on social media.
“I am a Trump fan, I did vote for Trump, but it is not the point,” he explained. “I wouldn’t say I wanted attention, I guess the profanity was a little bit of an outburst, the point was it was my right to do it.”
Healy cited the landmark 1971 Cohen vs. California Supreme Court ruling that upheld the speech rights of a man who was arrested after he walked into a court room wearing a jacket that had “F— the Draft” written on it.
The court ruled that the government cannot criminalize the display of profane words in public places.
“They are taking a conduct regulation and applying it to speech because they don’t like that speech because they find it offensive and the Supreme Court has clearly ruled that the government cannot do that,” Healy said.
He said the F-word is not considered obscene in any standard.
“It is not considered offensive in this country,” Healy said. “There is no way it qualifies as obscenity.”
But he said there could be exceptions depending on the context, noting that public schools have the right to bar offensive images or language on clothing.
David Snyder, director of the First Amendment Coalition in Sacramento, California, agreed but said it depends on the context: “The baseline that applies across the board is that the silencing of expression in this manner can’t be based on the message itself, the political views of the message.”
As of Tuesday, the “Biden S—-” sign remained in place. Ragusa said he hadn’t received any further official requests to remove any of the banners.
Said Ragusa: “I think its settled but I have nothing official or in writing so I am ready for anything.”
But Clark considered the matter closed once Ragusa removed the profane sign: “That was wonderful and I was so happy.”
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