City agrees to pay damages, apologize to Ohio teen for confiscating T-shirt

Tuesday, April 25, 2000

Northwood, Ohio, officials have agreed to pay $7,500 and send a letter of apology to settle a lawsuit filed on behalf of a 14-year-old boy whose shirt was confiscated by city police officers.

In August 1999, two police officers spotted Daniel Shellhammer walking down the street wearing a T-shirt promoting the rock-rap band Insane Clown Posse.

Shellhammer alleged that officers told him Insane Clown Posse clothing was “banned” in the state of Ohio. The shirt featured the band’s name on the front, along with a picture of Santa Claus with a bullet in his head. The back of the shirt bore the words “Merry F—— Xmas B—-.”

Last Jan. 26, Shellhammer, with assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, sued in federal court, contending the actions of the police had violated his free-expression rights.

“Defendants’ acts inhibited plaintiff in his exercise of free speech and [he] was punished for said exercise in violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” the complaint in Shellhammer v. City of Northwood read.

On April 14, the city and Arnold Gottlieb, Shellhammer’s attorney, reached an agreement in principle. On April 19, the probate court approved the settlement. (Under Ohio law, a probate court must approve settlements involving minors, Gottlieb said.)

The city agreed to pay $7,500 and issue the apology letter. Sent by City Administrator Charles Curtis, the April 14 letter to Shellhammer read: “In addition, on behalf of the City of Northwood and its Police Department, I would like to convey my sincere apology for any inconvenience or embarrassment you may have experienced in connection with the actions of our police officers on August 3, 1999.

“In closing, I hope you will maintain a positive attitude toward law enforcement, including officers of the City of Northwood Police Department. I wish you success in your future endeavors.”

Gottlieb called the settlement a “victory.”

“The biggest issue for us was not monetary damages, but a letter of apology which we received,” he said. “This was a First Amendment violation, because Daniel was stopped because of the content of his shirt rather than any conduct on his part,” Gottlieb said. “To their credit, city officials recognized the wrong and tried to resolve the matter quickly.”

Joan Szuberla, the attorney who represented the city, said, “The city has no comment other than what is in the contents of the letter.”