WILDWOOD — Fifteen-year-old Rachael Samonski didn’t have a hard time spotting an offensive T-shirt on the Wildwood Boardwalk on Monday.
“I don’t like it,” she said of the shirt featuring the phrase, “I’ll out drink all you b------.”
T-shirt shops are as much a part of summer at the Jersey Shore as funnel cakes and roller coasters, but each summer it’s the T-shirts that often draw criticism from passers-by.
“I’m against censorship, but when children are walking by it’s embarrassing, and it makes Wildwood look bad,” said Donna Short, a Wildwood Crest summer resident who took her complaints about the shirts she deems objectionable to City Hall.
During a recent City Commission meeting, Short told Mayor Ernie Troiano Jr. that the shirts featuring sexual images, expletives or drug-related slogans should not be on display in front of the Boardwalk where they are visible to all eyes and ages.
Troiano agreed, noting that the city routinely asks its merchants to put certain shirts out of view and they largely comply.
“It’s an image thing that we’re not proud of,” he said, but Troiano also said the city is limited as to what it can ask versus what it can require.
“If there’s a way of getting it off the Boardwalk we will do it,” Troiano said, noting that legally business owners and the goods they sell are protected by the Constitution and the right of free speech.
Many of the T-shirts that line the Boardwalk here and in other seaside towns are simply a reflection of what’s popular, featuring catchphrases and cartoon images, but some offer sexual innuendoes, sexually explicit images or images that appear to support the free use marijuana and other drugs.
On Monday, for instance, shirts in Wildwood had messages that included “Keep Calm and Dance,” “OFWGKTA” (reference to a group of hip hop performers), “You only live once” also written as “YOLO” and “I pooped today.”
Other shirts borrowed from the adidas logo, but read “addicted” and featured an image of a marijuana leaf, while others featured female and male images in sexually suggestive positions.
“It’s up to the consumer, but anything truly offensive we’d put it away,” said Joseph Sakkal, owner of two Boardwalk stores, Wild Planet and Marci’s Place.
The displays at the front of his stores carry dozens of shirts with the trendy, sometimes controversial images, as well as more traditional styles featuring everything from Marilyn Monroe and the Confederate flag to religious messages with images of a cross.
“We don’t put nasty words out here, just regular slang or parodies,” Sakkal said.
When a reporter pointed out a shirt that included an expletive, Sakkal had a worker replace it with another image.
“We understand where they’re coming from,” Sakkal said of those who object to some of the shirts. “But it’s words. It’s slogans. Some people get offended, but the majority of people don’t get offended.”
Sakkal said the same shirts are being sold in other shore towns and across the country, not just in Wildwood.
“If you go to Seaside Heights or Point Pleasant, they all sell the same ones that young people want. This is a young town, and it will always be a young town,” Sakkal said.
Reaction to the shirts is mixed.
“I see why they have them up here, but as a father it’s a little offensive,” Richard Samonski said as he and his daughter Rachael, of Hopewell Township, stopped outside Wild Planet, explaining he especially disliked the shirts with drug-related images.
He and his daughter said they both preferred the idea of keeping the shirts inside the stores away from impressionable eyes.
The shirts, however, wouldn’t dissuade the family from visiting Wildwood again next summer.
“They’re up and down the Boardwalk. After awhile, they don’t faze you,” Richard Samonski said.
Eighteen-year-old Alexis Showver, of Philadelphia, said she buys a T-shirt each summer when she visits the island, but she prefers the ones that have the word “Wildwood” on them.
She doesn’t wear the more graphic shirts, but she understands their popularity.
‘It’s mainly what people my age are wearing,” she said.
Members of Girl Scout Troop 81704 proudly displayed their shirts as they walked down the boards Monday.
The girls sported everything from souvenir Wildwood T-shirts to one that required an explanation for anyone not familiar with the group One Direction.
Troop Leader Diane Dahl and the girls said they noticed the language and images on some of the more graphic shirts and the girls agreed they wouldn’t wear them, suggesting they be kept out of view as well.
“My goal is to have them inside,” Short said of her crusade to move the shirts away from the Boardwalk. “I have seven grandkids and I just don’t want them exposed to this.”
Wildwood attorney Frank Corrado, who practices First Amendment law, said that while the T-shirts may be offensive to some, they would not meet the legal definition of obscenity.
“As a general matter, a municipality cannot regulate material simply because it’s offensive even if it’s grossly offensive,” Corrado said. “There’s substantial First Amendment rights that are at stake there.”
Professor Frank Askin, director of the Constitutional Litigation Clinic at Rutgers Law School in Newark, said little could be done by the municipality to limit the displays.
“Pornography is regulateable, obscenity is not, and I doubt these shirts reach the level of pornography,” Askin said.
Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian said his community has had similar issues over the years.
“I think all communities have that problem because people’s opinions on what’s ethical and not ethical differ,” he said. “If we find anything offensive, we go to the store owner and tell them what people are saying and 99 percent of the time they listen. Unfortunately, (those shirts) are usually the top sellers.”
Gillian added, “But between the merchants and everybody working together, we usually come to a favorable conclusion.”
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