Wearable speech: T-shirts and the First Amendment

Sunday, March 23, 2003

There’s a thin line between free speech and underwear.

According to fashion historians, T-shirts came into vogue in post-World War II America. Some credit James Dean with popularizing the plain white undershirt. By the late 1960s, though, that fashion statement gave way to a political statement. A simple T-shirt became a political force when decorated with a political slogan or motto.

Over the past 30 years, T-shirts bearing messages have been the subject of numerous First Amendment battles, including a recent controversy surrounding two men’s pro-peace T-shirts worn at the Crossgates Mall in Albany, N.Y.

Stephen Downs and his son Roger were told earlier this month to leave the mall or remove T-shirts bearing the slogans: “Peace on earth” and “Give peace a chance.” The father refused to remove his shirt and was charged with trespassing. In response, about 100 demonstrators marched through Crossgates Mall to protest the arrest.

National news coverage gave the managers of Crossgates Mall some new perspective, and they asked that the complaint against Downs be withdrawn.

This wasn’t an isolated incident. Time and again, courts have had to grapple with how much freedom of speech you can wear on your chest:

Of course, there are many who would dismiss this litany of litigation as inconsequential. After all, these courtroom battles over peace slogans or rock band names are hardly the stuff of the Pentagon Papers.

On the other hand, what could be a more telling testimony to First Amendment freedom in America? Many Americans have the confidence to become human billboards, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with a message they hold dear. Only a secure democracy provides that opportunity.

In the end, that’s what makes this nation so special: We can wear our hearts on our sleeves and our opinions on our chests.

Ken Paulson is executive director of the First Amendment Center with offices in Arlington, Va., and Nashville, Tenn. His mailing address is: Ken Paulson, First Amendment Center, 1207 18th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212