If t-shirts could talk …

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). Cohen wore a jacket bearing the words “Fuck the Draft” in a corridor of the Los Angeles Courthouse, and was convicted of disturbing the peace by “offensive conduct”. But the Supreme Court reversed the conviction:

The constitutional right of free expression is powerful medicine in a society as diverse and populous a ours. It is designed and intended to remove governmental restraints from the arena of public discussion, putting the decision as to what views shall be voiced largely into the hands of each of us, in the hope that use of such freedom will ultimately produce a more capable citizenry and more perfect polity and in the belief that no other approach would comport with the premise of individual dignity and choice upon which our political system rests. See Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 375-377 (1927) (Brandeis, J., concurring).

To many, the immediate consequence of this freedom may often appear to be only verbal tumult, discord, and even offensive utterance. These are, however, within established limits, in truth necessary side effects of the broader enduring values which the process of open debate permits us to achieve. That the air may at times seem filled with verbal cacophony is, in this sense not a sign of weakness but of strength. We cannot lose sight of the fact that, in what otherwise might seem a trifling and annoying instance of individual distasteful abuse of a privilege, these fundamental societal values are truly implicated. … (403 U.S. 15, 23-24 (1971) per Harlan J).

So it came as no surprise at all that the White House – eventually – conceded defeat and settled the Ranks’ case (see also Common Dreams | Nat Hentoff).

Reading all of this reminded me of a story that appeared in Irish newspapers last year: the headline in the Irish Independent said it all: Man sent to jail for wearing punk rock T-shirt; a Bray punk rocker, Philip Dunleavy [update: obituary here]

… who decided to dress down for a court appearance by wearing a T-shirt with the word ‘bollocks’ on it has been jailed for seven days. … He was wearing the infamous yellow T-shirt, designed by Vivienne Westwood, which said “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols“.

Sex Pistols tee-shirt, via Irish Independent siteThe tee-shirt replicated the sleeve of a Sex Pistols album which, ironically, had been unsuccessfully prosecuted for obscenity when it was originally released more than 30 years ago now. However, as another Irish Independent headline put it, it was a storm in a tee-shirt (pictured left, held by Dunleavy’s girlfriend Lorraine Fitzpatrick), Dunleavy spent seven nights in jail for his contempt, and provided the local paper – the Bray People – with two big stories (here and here). Bray District Court isn’t the only court where judges have reacted badly to slogan t-shirts; in 2004, a Strabane magistrate tore strips off a driver over a rude t-shirt (it was a French Connection t-shirt, and the slogan read “I live to f**k”) . One of the articles on the Bray case said:

Legal experts commenting on the case have said that Judge Connellan was perfectly within his rights to send Mr Dunleavy to jail, as he felt he was in contempt in the face of the court.

As the law now stands (see here and here), this is probably the case. But if the Irish protections of freedom of expression are gaining some teeth, could there come a time when an Irish equivalent of Cohen might allow defendants to wear their favourite t-shirts (whether they are punk rockers or slaves to French Connection fashion) without fear of being held in contempt of court. Maybe t-shirts won’t get us into such trouble in the future.