WASHINGTON. — Washington.--Not long ago at a certain barbecue restaurant in southside Virginia, where most of the customers are church-going senior citizens, a young man and his female friend entered wearing T-shirts.
The message on his shirt was in four big red letters, plus an exclamation point. To most religious old folks, and especially to those already eating, it was not an appetizing word. To say it or flaunt it in public is bad manners among the dwindling band of citizens who still have manners.
I said to my fellow witness, an octogenarian, that if I were the
manager, I would have told the T-shirt wearer to take his business elsewhere. My companion, as socially conservative as they get, said something about freedom of speech. The T-shirt wearer sat and ate while everybody else tried to look the other way.
T-shirts are not the only offenders against public civility in modern America, but they are in a growth sector along with boom boxes and little automobiles exploding with amplified sound. They have, in fact, provoked some useful debate about the First Amendment -- and as we approach the bicentennial of the Bill of Rights, any debate that reminds Americans of that document's existence is a public service.
Like the young man who wore the four-letter word, 18-year-old Gregory Baus is not a constitutional scholar. But he knew what he was up to this spring when he wore his anti-abortion T-shirt to class at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County.
A self-described evangelical Protestant, he says he regularly pickets abortion clinics. His mother works for an anti-abortion group, but he says he decided for himself to do what he did.
He drew on his T-shirt a dismembered fetus, with the words "Kinda looks like murder doesn't it? It is murder and it is legal. It's abortion."
The first few times he wore it to school, it failed to stir a fuss. Then he asked an assistant principal for her opinion, and she gave it. She also ordered him to take off the shirt. He refused and was driven home. Later the school officials backed down, but the eventual result was a lawsuit in which Mr. Baus accuses them of violating his free speech rights.
The case recalls the flag-burning controversy so eagerly fanned by President Bush, as well as the flag-flaunting in recent controversy at Harvard: If burning a U.S. flag can be considered political speech, wearing a T-shirt obnoxious to some viewers must be speech, too. And if flying the Confederate flag despite protests is permissible on a university campus, then wearing a political T-shirt on a high school campus must be all right, too.
But there are differences among these cases, and even a First Amendment fanatic should recognize reasonable doubts about whether its guarantee of free speech applies equally to all three provocations. The key difference is where each of these alleged offenses took place, and who did or did not censor them.
The anti-flag-burning laws knocked down by the Supreme Court, for example, applied to public places. The would-be censors were state governments. But at Woodlawn and Harvard, the T-shirt and Confederate flag were displayed on campuses, one public and one private.
The would-be censors were school officials with the theoretical authority to control that environment. But in the spirit of free speech, they allowed T-shirt and banner statements to flourish. At Woodlawn, the governing policy banned only shirts considered obscene or libelous by the principal.
At Harvard, the Stars and Bars was hung out a dormitory window as a conservative student's protest against the university's Northeastern liberalism. "If they talk about tolerance, they better be ready to have it," the student told a reporter. In response, black students offended by the Confederate flag hung out a swastika banner but took it down after protests by Jewish students. The uncomfortable university president stuck by Harvard's free-speech tradition and refused to ban either display.
The discomfort at Harvard and Woodlawn could have been headed off if those officials had made and enforced rules against all dormitory banners and all decorated T-shirts, whatever their message. Trouble came when particular messages were flaunted after myriad others were tolerated.
Under the First Amendment, schools can make rules of dress and deportment. When they start choosing among political statements, they are on shaky ground. More lessons follow.
Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.