The Ranks in their tee-shirts… they might get you in trouble. Oh, wait a minute – they do!

Say you wanted to attend a political rally to indicate your disapproval of the speaker in a way that made your position clear but did not in fact disrupt the proceedings in any way. Why not try the age-old slogan t-shirt? Well, that’s what Jeff and Nicole Rank did when they attended a Fourth of July appearance in 2004 by President Bush at the West Virginia State Capitol wearing t-shirts critical of the president (see picture, left). There the story should have ended; but it didn’t. The Ranks were promptly arrested – and handcuffed – for their troubles! But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) represented them in a case against the White House (that didn’t seem to get nearly enough coverage at the time, though there’s a wonderful article about it in the New Republic), arguing:

Two Americans went to see their president and to express their disagreement with his policies respectfully and peacefully. They were arrested at the direction of federal officials. That is precisely what the First Amendment was adopted to prevent.

Don’t take the ACLU’s word for it; the Supreme Court of the United States has said so too, in a famous First Amendment case called Cohen v California 403 U.S. 15 (1971). (more…)