Freedom in a T-Shirt

Harvey Silverglate on the State of the Union T-shirt controversy
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  February 3, 2006

SHEEHAN, pictured; T-shirt sold separately. At Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, Capitol police arrested antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan, who had arrived as a guest, because she was wearing an antiwar shirt (displaying “2242,” the number of US troop fatalities in Iraq). They also asked Beverly Young, wife of US Representative Bill Young, to leave the building for wearing a “Support Our Troops” shirt. The police apologized Wednesday, saying that neither woman should have been asked to leave.

For comment, David S. Bernstein spoke with Boston Phoenix “Freedom Watch” columnist Harvey Silverglate.

David S. Bernstein: The Capitol Police have apologized for arresting Cindy Sheehan. Should we be satisfied with that?

Harvey Silverglate: The problem is, we all know that the reason they arrested Sheehan is that they didn’t want her there. They were afraid she was going to boo, or whatever, and disrupt the President’s address. But they could have just barred her. I have trouble understanding why they arrested her. The only reason I can come up with is that they didn’t want her taking her protest out onto the sidewalk during the State of the Union.

DB: Which would have created a counter-news situation, in effect disrupting the speech without actually being in the building.

HS: Yes. They easily could have kept her out, by citing some sort of dress code. The Constitution allows the House to make rules governing itself, so they have the right to bar her.

DB: With this incident, and the local "Stop Snitchin" controversy, are T-shirts the new front line of the free speech wars?

HS: What’s new is that the contentiousness of the times is such that people are more eager to exercise censorship authority over others. T-shirts is an area where this little culture war is playing itself out. T-shirts have been the protest method of choice for a long time — it’s nothing new that people want to make political statements on T-shirts. In Massachusetts, the Supreme Judicial Court’s case declaring freedom of speech in public schools was a T-shirt case. During the Vietnam War protests, the federal ruling allowing the “Fuck the Draft” message in a courthouse was a T-shirt case. [Note: Actually, it was a jacket.]

DB: So if the legal issue is settled, why have we seen these new clashes?

HS: After those two cases were decided, we had quite a few years when it was pretty well accepted that a message, in and of itself, is not disruptive. The rule has always been “as long as it’s not disruptive,” and to merely wear it — even if it annoyed a few people — was not disruptive. What’s happening now is that we’re getting a renewal of the attack on the T-shirt as legitimate political expression, whether it’s Mayor Menino pressuring stores not to sell it, or a judge saying you can’t wear it in a courtroom, or the Capital police saying you can’t wear it at the President’s speech.

DB: It seems, though, that they try to avoid the appearance of censoring the particular message, by saying we’re barring all T-shirts, or by saying that you can display that message but not in this venue.

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