‘Offensive’ T-shirt elicits harassment charge

Friday, April 24, 1998

Marilyn Manson...
Marilyn Manson
Wearing a T-shirt with a lewd obscenity apparently is a fashion faux pas in the conservative western Kentucky town of Benton. What will have to be decided in court is whether it is criminal.

In a case that raises issues of free speech and public decency, a young woman was cited for violating a state harassment statute by wearing a T-shirt depicting one of her favorite rock bands and an obscene phrase from one of its songs.


Venus Starlett Dust Morgan, who goes by “Star,” pleaded innocent at her arraignment Wednesday and trial was set for May 8 in Marshall District Court.


Miss Morgan, 20, was cited April 6 during the Tater Days festival after she refused a police demand that she change out of a Marilyn Manson T-shirt. The rock group is known for lewd acts onstage and lyrics about murder, rape and self-mutilation.


A conviction on the violation would not mean jail time but could bring a maximum fine of $250.


“It was a band that I like,” Miss Morgan explained Thursday.


“I had just bought it two days before I wore it. They told me I couldn't wear it because it had a curse word.”


[David Harshaw, staff member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky in Louisville, said that the shirt said "Marilyn Manson" on the front and "I Am the God of F***" on the back.]

Police said they received complaints from several people attending Tater Days, a community event featuring a parade, a midway and other family activities. Sgt. Ted Thompson said police acted on advice of the county attorney in citing Miss Morgan for harassment.


“She was up in the midway where the mothers and little kids were,” Thompson said.


The county attorney, Jeff Edwards, said he did not feel Miss Morgan's free-speech rights were violated, considering the phrase on the shirt.


“Not when it's so offensive,” he said.


The shirt contained a lewd obscenity and a religious reference.


“I think it had to do with the word God on the shirt,” Miss Morgan said of her legal problems. “The band is kind of into satanism. I think that's why they don't like them.”


David Morgan, 47, said his daughter is used to drawing stares because she dresses differently than other people and wears pierced jewelry in her face. But he did not think she committed any crime by wearing the T-shirt.


“I would not wear it myself, because I am a strong believer in God,” he said. “But before religion, I believe in every American's right to express what they want.”


Morgan and his daughter said they consider the case to be one of religious persecution.


Miss Morgan said a woman standing next to the police officer who gave her the citation was wearing a religious T-shirt that referred to Jesus.


“I can understand it, but I'm offended by their shirts sometimes too,” Miss Morgan said. “There were shirts that say 'Join the Klan,' and there were black people here.”


Edwards, the county attorney, said Miss Morgan was cited because the state harassment statute prohibits “an offensively coarse utterance, gesture or display” with “intent to harass, annoy or alarm.”


Everett Hoffman, executive director of the ACLU of Kentucky, said the case should be thrown out on constitutional grounds.


“My hope and expectation would be that if the constitutional arguments are presented to the judge in Marshall County, the case would be immediately dismissed,” he said. He said he believes there is precedent for expressions on clothing being treated as free speech.


When Miss Morgan refused to leave the Tater Days midway, or to change, she said police told her they would take her home.


“I was detained,” she said. “The only choice I had was to get in the car.”


When they got to her home, they waited outside while she changed into shirt that had a picture of mass murderer Charles Manson and a caption “Charlie Fan Club.”


Miss Morgan said a police officer saw it and told her, “I guess that's OK.”


A first-semester student at Murray State University, Miss Morgan said she has a B average and plans to pursue a career in mortuary science.


“It's never caused a problem at school,” she said of her wardrobe.