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BEZAWADA: Free speech issues are arising with regard to Christmas

Opinions Column: Traipse the Fine Line

Residents of New Jersey feel no pride for their state, obviously. Other than the Liberty Science Center, the Jersey Shore and the old-timey diners, there is nothing much redeeming about the state. The only remotely interesting thing about New Jersey is ranking No. 1 out of all U.S. states for bad drivers.

But it certainly does not lack in Christmas cheer.

Around 15 miles north of New Brunswick lies the small township of Old Bridge. It boasts a population of more than 20,000, a summerly farmer’s market and even a small museum. It is a quintessential, quaint and ordinary little town. But as the patterns reveal, no unit, no matter how small, can be underestimated.

Old Bridge has had a recent rise to infamy. Bordering Sayreville, recently a subject of intense ethical debate even as far away as the U.K., something just had to follow up.

What better than a Christmas disaster?

Tom Apruzzi, a homeowner in Old Bridge, is the spark to thank as his property annually undergoes a spectacular change in late November. A magnificent symbol of passion and grit, the colossal 70,000 Christmas light display magically transforms the run-of-the-mill house into a dynamic, real-life winter paradise synchronized to booming music. The attraction has lured thousands of awed visitors over the past 15 years since its inception. Some travel all the way from Pennsylvania and New York, largely a result of its appearance on ABC’s show “Great Christmas Light Fight” in 2014.

The problem? Apruzzi's house is located on a dead end street, and there are significant hazards associated with such a grand project conducted in a limited space. The bright lights, blaring music, hundreds of parked cars and people crammed in a 24-foot-wide road are not only incredibly frustrating for neighbors, but they also pose major dangers for everyone present. In prior years, the local police force was hired free-of-charge. But, the number of visitors is growing and the officers are not trained in crowd control. Efforts to regulate parking failed and Mayor Owen Henry (R) was ultimately forced to step in.

The intervention was bound to happen. It was the manner in which it happened, though, that upset Apruzzi and other supportive citizens. Apruzzi is now required to pay $2,000 per night to keep his show legally in operation. This accumulates to approximately $75,000 total if he plans to continue the display until the end of December. The $2,000 reimburses police officers, safety light posts and the fuel for the posts. Apruzzi already donates any funds earned through his attraction to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Homes For Our Troops.

Outraged, Apruzzi claimed that the township was infringing upon his First Amendment to the United States Constitution rights, a decree that spikes some thought-provoking questions. How much is a citizen entitled to the First Amendment if it encroaches upon others' (the neighbors’) comfort? Does it matter in the face of the common good (the thousands of visitors)? Is the First Amendment, then, limited? Where are the boundaries defined? The nuanced battle between equity and efficiency rages on. Moreover, a major argument against Henry expresses discontent that he lives in the same neighborhood as Apruzzi. Is enacting these penalties an abuse of power? Does the mayor have the right to subject a single individual to fines, but not others who also hang Christmas lights? Do the lights even count as self-expression as defined in the Constitution?

These doubts can be extrapolated to further real-world issues. The European Union has just passed Article 13, a copyright measure that censors the types of content that can be uploaded to the internet. The social media network Tumblr is also set to officially eliminate all adult content, including illustrations, in two weeks. Is fining Apruzzi’s lights considered censorship?

This seemingly insignificant feud is fundamentally crucial to our interpretation of nationwide freedom. Just as America’s current tariff war with China severely impacts the well-being of our country’s farmers, so does any law the government enacts reverberate most strongly in local towns and neighborhoods. This in turn triggers a butterfly effect that influences everybody around them. The definition of “freedom” is rapidly evolving, and the government is struggling to keep up.

Agreed, New Jersey is boring. But the infighting is worth more than an amused snort — especially when the opinions involved can affect how we live our lives. Christmas would not be Christmas without lights, would it?

Sruti Bezawada is a Rutgers Business School and School of Arts and Sciences Honors Program  sophomore double majoring in marketing and communications and minoring in Japanese. Her column, “Traipse the Fine Line," runs every alternate Wednesday.


*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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