Is wearing offensive T-shirt free expression or obscene act?

Tuesday, February 17, 1998

A jury will determine whether the First Amendment right of free expression protects an Ocala, Fla., man whose topless nun T-shirt was confiscated by local police.

Andrew James Love, a 22-year-old Florida man, faces obscenity charges for wearing a T-shirt promoting the British “death metal” band Cradle of Filth. Oral arguments are scheduled for tomorrow.

Last November the record store clerk was arrested in the Ocala Mall parking lot because of his shirt, which features a nun grabbing her crotch with an inscription comparing Jesus to a part of the female anatomy.

Marion County Judge Sandra Edward-Stephens last week rejected a defense motion to suppress the shirt from evidence. Love’s attorneys had contended that the arresting officer, Doug Russell, illegally seized the shirt because he did not have a warrant.

“This is going to be interesting,” said Dave Schlenker, a columnist at the Ocala Star-Banner. “I’m happy it went to trial. …This is a very conservative area and sometimes things like this really fuel the fires.”

The recent addition of an adult bookstore to the city’s landscape caused some uproar, and the anticipated arrival of an abortion clinic is expected to “ruffle a few feathers as well,” Schlenker told the First Amendment Center.

According to Andy Kayton, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the group hopes to see these charges against Love dropped, but it has never been asked to get involved in the case.

Kayton told the FAC that the group won a similar case in nearby Pasco County a few years ago. The group represented a woman who was pulled over by a police officer and cited for violating the same obscenity law Love is being charged with. Her vehicle featured a bumper sticker depicting an extended middle finger along with the quote: “Censor This!”

Florida law defines obscenity as something the average person believes would appeal to a prurient, shameful or morbid interest. According to the law, something is obscene if it depicts or describes sexual material in a patently offensive way and lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

Said Kayton: “There are some very strange obscenity convictions in Florida. …The notion that someone could be convicted for wearing a T-shirt is remarkable in the United States.”

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