Fire school gift shop in hot water

May 20, 1995|By Michael James | Michael James,Sun Staff Writer

Saying politically correct government officials are trampling his rights, a blind proprietor of an Emmitsburg gift shop is battling to sell sexually suggestive T-shirts and cards in a federal building.

O'Leary's Emporium at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg lost part of the battle yesterday when U.S. District Judge William N. Nickerson ruled that, at least for now, owner Donald J. Morris must keep the items off his shelves.

More than 15,000 firefighters from around the country go to the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg each year to study the science of battling fires.

But right now, the academy's biggest battle is in the basement, where Mr. Morris has his store.

He is trying to make a First Amendment case against the federal government, which has barred him from selling "Big Johnson" T-shirts and posters of bikini-clad women in the arms of firefighters. Mr. Morris has sold those items in the past, but Carrye B. Brown, the nation's top fire official, issued an order Feb. 17 telling him to stop.

The fight has moved into federal court, where attorneys and federal officials are trying to sort out whether Mr. Morris has a right to sell his controversial goods.

"The sale . . . of items which denote sexually offensive and discriminatory statements, depictions or pictures is in violation of federal law and presents a hostile and sexually offensive environment," Ms. Brown wrote in her order.

Ms. Brown also threatened to lock Mr. Morris out of his shop if he continued to sell "sexually offensive or sexually demeaning" material.

Mr. Morris, 56, is a private businessman who works in the building through a federal program for blind people operating vending facilities. He and his attorney said the order is unfair because it doesn't define what is sexually offensive.

"I don't make a living by offending people. These things we sell just put a little levity in it for the firefighters," Mr. Morris said of the novelty items, which have a fireman's theme.

Posters previously sold at O'Leary's show scantily clad women in fire helmets. "Big Johnson" T-shirts offer sexual innuendoes about firefighters and women.

During a hearing yesterday, prosecutors explained to Judge Nickerson -- who didn't get the thinly veiled reference -- that the dictionary lists "Johnson" as a slang word for penis.

In court motions, Mr. Morris is arguing that his right to free speech -- or perhaps more specifically, free selling -- is being squashed by the federal government's "rush to political correctness."

"Unlike obscenity and fighting words, there is no bad taste exception to the First Amendment," Mr. Morris' attorney, Andrew D. Freeman, wrote in a memorandum seeking an injunction against Ms. Brown and the U.S. Fire Administration. Judge Nickerson heard arguments yesterday and will make a ruling in June.

Ms. Brown said she wrote the order after she got complaints from two female firefighters.

Both were attending seminars at the academy when they saw the items for sale in O'Leary's.

One of those firefighters, Terese Floren, is executive director of Women in the Fire Service, a Madison, Wis.-based advocacy group for female firefighters. She described the firefighting profession as an enclave of white men, with women making up less than 2 percent of the working population.

"I was shocked to see these things were being sold. It goes beyond just denigrating women; it sexualizes the firefighter's work environment," Ms. Floren testified. "These things are saying it's OK for men to think of hoses and nozzles as phallic substitutes. That's the wrong message."

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