Tee Shirts, Tea Shirts, And The First Amendment

October 20, 2010

Two tee shirt incidents are in the news. There is the “Tea Shirt” case that is getting a lot of coverage. Then there’s this story from Baldwinsville, New York. Both present constitutional questions regarding free speech and the first amendment.

A Flagstaff, Arizona  woman wants to wear her “Tea Party” shirt into her local polling place when she votes on November 2nd. The dispute started back in May, when Diane Wickberg showed up for a sales tax vote wearing the controversial piece of clothing, which reads “Flagstaff Tea Party,Reclaiming Our Constitution Now.” She was told by a poll worker that she needed to turn the shirt inside out, but was eventually allowed to vote wearing the shirt because no one else was voting at the time. A State statute says that “no political or electioneering materials may be displayed” within 75 feet of any polling place.

Now she is suing for the right to wear her shirt when voting in the upcoming election. She is being supported by the Goldwater Institute, which filed the federal civil rights lawsuit on Ms. Wickberg’s behalf. The suit claims that neither the T-shirt nor the Flagstaff Tea Party advocates for or against any candidate or ballot measure. Therefore, the suit contends, Ms. Wickberg’s First Amendment free speech rights are being violated.

My bias is always towards protecting speech, but it seems a stretch to argue that the phrase “Tea Party” is not political. We’ll soon find out what the court thinks.

The second “tee-shirt” situation is shocking, and kind of funny. It pits a fourth grade Yankees fan against his teacher, a die-hard Red Sox fan. The teacher decided that Nathan Johns shouldn’t be allowed to wear his CC Sabathia shirt to school. So, he made him turn it inside out and wear it that way for the rest of the school day. The boy and his parents are now claiming that the student’s First Amendment rights were violated, and they are right. As I have posted in the past, schools do have some power when it comes to regulating a student’s appearance and clothing, see here and here. The teacher might be in a slightly better position to argue if his classroom wasn’t decorated in Red Sox paraphernalia.

The school district is now investigating. I’m willing to bet the teacher loses this battle. As a Mets fan, I’m not going to get into the wisdom of allowing your child to root for the Yankees.

Previous post:

Next post: