Taunting T-shirt not suitable attire, says N.J. appeals court

Thursday, October 28, 1999

A New Jersey trial judge did not violate the constitutional rights of a woman facing assault charges by preventing her from wearing to court a T-shirt commenting on the case, says a state appeals court.

Florence Castoran was convicted by a jury of third-degree aggravated assault for kicking and pushing a security guard at an Atlantic City casino in 1996.

At her trial, Castoran wore a T-shirt which said “Atlantic City Police Department, Atlantic City's Finest Liars” on the front and “Police Brutality Victim, Atlantic City” on the back.

The trial judge ordered her to remove the clothing. On appeal, Castoran argued that the judge had abused his discretion by precluding her from wearing the clothing of her choice.

The New Jersey appeals court rejected Castoran's argument in its Oct. 25 opinion. The court noted that trial courts generally have broad leeway in regulating dress or conduct relating to testimony in a case. “Dress that conveys a message to the jury and is germane to the subject matter of the jury's inquiry is particularly susceptible to scrutiny by the trial judge,” the appeals court wrote in State v. Castoran.

Castoran's attorneys offered the 1971 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Cohen v. California as a precedent proving that her First Amendment rights had been violated. In Cohen, the high court reversed the disturbing-the-peace conviction of a man who wore a jacket with the words “F— the Draft” in the hallways of a courthouse.

The New Jersey appeals court distinguished Castoran's situation from Cohen by noting that Cohen had removed his jacket before entering the courtroom and the message about the draft “was neither testimonial nor relevant as the slogan was not germane to the subject matter of the court proceedings.”

The appeals court said that Castoran's wearing of the T-shirt “was nothing less than an overt attempt to place that issue [of police brutality] before the triers of fact.”

“A trial judge may exercise legitimate discretion to preclude a defendant from wearing inappropriate clothing when such clothing is directed to an improper purpose,” the court concluded.

Calls placed to attorneys on both sides of the case were not returned.