T-Shirts, Airlines, and the Limits of Political Speech

A story headlined "American Airlines Rejects Female Passenger Because Political Pro-Choice T-Shirt is 'Inappropriate'" is going viral.

A story headlined “American Airlines Rejects Female Passenger Because Political Pro-Choice T-Shirt is ‘Inappropriate’” is going viral. Let’s just say that the “inappropriateness” of the shirt has nothing to do with its political content.

Today, I received an email from one of those colleagues, detailing the ordeal through which she was put by American Airlines on her flights home. They actually forced her to miss her connecting flight and demanded she change her top. The reason? Her politically salient pro-choice t-shirt was offensive to the flight crew.

Shocking, right?

That sign said: “If I wanted the government in my womb, I’d fuck a senator.”The t-shirt is the now-popularized version of a sign held by Oklahoma state senator Judy McIntyre (D) at a pro-choice rally in early March to protest Oklahoma’s so-called personhood law, which in conferring the rights of a living, breathing person on a fertilized egg denies all rights of personhood of women, full stop.

Oh. So, she wore a shirt with a word printed on it that, if uttered on broadcast television or radio will net the broadcaster a hefty fine? That usually garners an R rating for a movie? On a public conveyance with small children aboard? And people are outraged that she was admonished and told she’d have to change shirts?

Now, the sequence of events does strike me as rather odd, presuming her story is accurate:

[O]n the plane of the first leg of my flight home, I spent the majority of [time] sleeping, using my shawl as a blanket. Right before we were set to land the flight attendant from first class approaches me and asks if I had a connecting flight? We were running a bit behind schedule, so I figured I was being asked this to be sure I would make my connecting flight.  She then proceeded to tell me that I needed to speak with the captain before disembarking the plane and that the shirt I was wearing was offensive.

The shirt was gray with the wording, “If I wanted the government in my womb, I’d fuck a senator.” I must also mention that when I boarded the plane, I was one of the first groups to board (did not pass by many folks).  I was wearing my shawl just loosely around my neck and upon sitting down in my seat the lady next to me, who was already seated, praised me for wearing the shirt.

When I was leaving the plane the captain stepped off with me and told me I should not have been allowed to board the plane in DC and needed to change before boarding my next flight. This conversation led to me missing my connecting flight.  I assumed that because I was held up by the captain, they would have called ahead to let the connecting flight know I was in route.  Well, upon my hastened arrival at the gate of the connecting flight, it was discovered that they did indeed call ahead but not to hold the flight, only to tell them I needed to change my shirt. I was given a seat on the next flight and told to change shirts.

Due to the fact that my luggage was checked, changing shirts without spending money wasn’t an option. I consulted a friend with a law background who told me covering with my shawl would suffice. Upon boarding the now rescheduled flight with shawl covering my shirt, my ticket dinged invalid. I was pulled to the side while the gentleman entered some codes into the computer and then told, “it was all good.”  I did finally arrive home to pick up my daughter an hour and a half later than scheduled.

Now, I’m not sure what authority the pilot has to detain passengers as they’re disembarking the plane. I suspect that, if one tried to detain me, I’d use a common two word infinitive containing the word in question. But, presumably, he was enforcing airline policy–and quite possibly FAA regulations. How he knew she had a connecting flight, I don’t know; presumably, he wouldn’t have any authority to do anything otherwise.

Regardless, a grown woman decided to wear a shirt in public with a word everyone knows is considered vulgar scrawled on it. She was inconvenienced with a 90 minute flight delay, mostly because her connecting flight was so close. Or, as Jodi Jacobson describes it,

So let’s review some facts. O. went through security and was stopped for additional screening, but not deemed a “security risk,” and no one at TSA made the slightest mention of her t-shirt. She boarded her first flight, and none of the airline personnel at the gate mentioned her t-shirt. She quietly took her seat, wrapped her shawl around herself, and went to sleep.

When her plane landed the flight attendant confronted her and said she had to speak to the captain. At no point did anyone say quietly, hey… could you keep that covered with your shawl? Could you turn it inside out? We have a policy….

Instead, after the plane landed the flight attendant brought her up front where the captain berated her publicly and made her miss her connecting flight. It turns out when she asked if anyone had complained the answer was: NO, Only the flight attendant!

TSA is in the business of looking for dangerous materials, 3.5 ounce bottles, and the like–not offensive t-shirts. Additionally, the woman was wearing a shawl, so it’s quite likely nobody noticed her shirt during boarding and takeoff. The flight attendant subsequently noticed and reported it to the pilot, which is presumably protocol. And I’m not sure I’d trust someone with the poor judgment of wearing that shirt for her flight to keep it covered up; insisting she change it is hardly unreasonable.

We don’t have any information about the content and tone of the pilot’s admonition. If he was rude or “berated” her, that’s problematic. But he’s surely allowed to tell her that she’s not allowed to fly wearing a shirt that says FUCK on it.

But protest these laws and the War on Women with a t-shirt that gets right to the point? Let people know the basis of all of it, the people that “want government out of our lives” want to place it directly into our bodies? In a country supposedly founded on freedom of speech and expression, in which protestors can stand outside clinics harassing and threatening women and doctors, and run through every public square with gory doctored photos? A country in which other protestors can stand outside the funerals of gay soldiers killed in duty and scream disgusting insults, and still have their rights protected?

Oh, no. You can’t do that. You can’t take that message that your body is your own anywhere. Because in the United States today, that is like taking your burqha off under the Taliban. That is “offensive,” “insulting” and “not for public consumption.”

At least according to American Airlines, which apparently has not heard the term freedom of expression.

Sigh. There’s simply no question that this woman has a right to protest government policies. But there are time, place, and manner restrictions and always have been. Using vulgar signage is simply less protected than speech conveying the same message in a different way. Indeed, if the shirt had said “SCREW a Senator” instead, I suspect she’d have been fine.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Phillip says:

    Sigh. There’s simply no question that this woman has a right to protest government policies. But there are time, place, and manner restrictions and always have been.

    Pardon my bluntness, but I find statements like this … patronizing?

  2. Just Me says:

    I suspect the restriction on profanity may be an airline policy and not necessarily a TSA one.

    I also suspect it was the Fbomb that was the issue and not the message, however it will get more media coverage if the story is written so that the objection was to the message.

  3. mistermix says:

    Wearing a t-shirt that says “fuck” whatever is dumb when you’re traveling by air, simply because of the widespread scrutiny that surrounds air travel.

    Thinking that your job as a pilot and flight attendant includes the power to enforce social norms is also very stupid. I’m sure that something that offends someone’s sense of propriety happens on most airplanes.

    The difference between these two stupidities is that the latter has power over the former, and with power comes the duty to use it judiciously. The whole air travel security theater shitshow has given a bunch of people the notion that their mere presence as a person of authority in an airport or on an airplane gives them a whole array of special powers. Every opportunity where these people overstep needs to come with consequences for the overstepper. I hope that the flight attendant and the pilot get some form of administrative sanction so they and others like them stop thinking they are something more than transportation workers.

  4. Just Me says:

    I hope that the flight attendant and the pilot get some form of administrative sanction so they and others like them stop thinking they are something more than transportation workers.

    Whether you agree with the policies or not, all airline carriers in the various small print when you buy your tickets state that obscene, lewd, offensive etc clothes. Some airlines will also prohibit inappropriate clothing. Now the definition may be vague when it comes to some clothing choices or messages, but it hard to argue that the F bomb isn’t obscene.

  5. Tsar Nicholas says:

    I actually laughed out loud at the following passage from that sob story to which the blog post makes reference:

    Oh, no. You can’t do that. You can’t take that message that your body is your own anywhere. Because in the United States today, that is like taking your burqha off under the Taliban. That is “offensive,” “insulting” and “not for public consumption.”

    At least according to American Airlines, which apparently has not heard the term freedom of expression.

    Wow. I mean, just, wow! How would you even describe that underlying pathology? You’ve got projection. Transference. Hyperbole to 11. Cognitive dissociation. Then to top it off a lack of understanding of basic civics. Since when did American Airlines become the government?

    It’s a good thing the publisher of that screed doesn’t have a policy against fatuous doggerel; otherwise the author still would be shopping for one.

  6. delia says:

    This blog post is not surprising from someone who also wrote things like this:

    Isn’t it time to stop pretending that Planned Parenthood and a large contingent of the abortion lobby is “pro-choice” when they are rather obviously pro-abortion? After all, Margaret Sanger started it as a eugenic movement to kill off “inferior” black and Jewish babies.

    https://www.outsidethebeltway.com/i_had_an_abortion_t-shirts/

    I mean, you’ve changed your tone to appear more “reasonable” these days, but the hatred still shines through, Mr Joyner.

  7. delia says:

    And very nice bit of guilt by association there – Planned Parenthood must be FOR “killing off inferior black and Jewish babies” too!

  8. Ben Wolf says:

    Was the woman removed from the flight good-looking? If so she should be able to so anything she wants.

  9. Ben Wolf says:

    @Ben Wolf: so = do

  10. Ebenezer Arvigenius says:

    Sigh.

    Sometimes I think I will never get Americans. They fight to the death for the ability of our Neo-Nazis to spread their message and to violate our laws in the process. But wearing a somewhat impolite T-shirt on an airplane? Now that woman clearly had it coming….

    FWIIW, I wouldn’t have expected to get a second look for that shirt, much less have expected expensive problems with follow-up flights. I mean, this was the most popular clothing item when I was attending university in Britain :D.

    Perhaps she wasn’t quite up-to-date on the expectations of the “anständige[n] Bürger” around her.

  11. Tom says:

    @Ebenezer Arvigenius: It’s the obsession with sex. Here’s how it works. Neo-Nazis screaming “kill the Jews”, a-okay. Neo-Nazis screaming “let’s fuck the Jews”, not okay.

  12. Ben Wolf says:

    @Ebenezer Arvigenius: Our politics and culture are rife with contradictions. It’s very difficult for an outsider to get a grasp, and it isn’t that easy for a native citizen either.

  13. gVOR08 says:

    Seems simple enough. If American Airlines has a written policy banning clothing with offensive language, and if they have a documented history of even handed enforcement, then this is completely unobjectionable. And if not, not. I hope the woman in question has a lawyer requesting said documentation from AA.

  14. Franklin says:

    How he knew she had a connecting flight, I don’t know

    I believe that’s mentioned higher up with the flight attendant asked her if she had one.

  15. Joe Murphy says:

    A “common two word infinitive”? “To F–k.” I am guessing you meant “invective.”

  16. Hey Norm says:

    I’m all for freedom of speech…but an airplane is private property…and the Captain of the Ship is in command of his vessel. Don’t like it? Tough shit.

  17. PD Shaw says:

    This doesn’t appear to be government action, so its not a government restriction that time, place and manner restrictions apply.

    I assume this is the same principle that if you come to my house dressed in an offensive manner, I have the right to direct you to leave. If you come to my place of business, I can ask you to leave. If you paid for the privilege, I probably need to reimbuse your cost, unless you’ve already been told (in the fine print) to dress in an appropriate manner.

  18. Franklin says:

    @Phillip: You seem to be under the impression that ‘patronizing’ is a pejorative. The word implies that JJ thinks he has more sense than the woman. He does, so patronizing is a perfectly acceptable attitude to take here.

  19. Anderson says:

    Pretty funny shirt, though.

  20. al-Ameda says:

    I’m pretty sure that the f*** bomb was the issue, not the reproductive rights stuff. It’s hard, but some people just cannot get through a day without calling attention to themselves.

    That said, America has been in decline for the better part of 30 years, this is just more more evidence of that.

    Frankly I have more problem with the selfish passengers who carry-on large luggage and hold up the boarding lines while they attempt to stow their oversized luggage in the overhead bins, and later when in disembarking they hold up the lines while they try to extricate their stuff.

  21. Am I the only one who dislikes people wearing ANY sort of T-shirt on a plane? Having to sit next to a total slob for three hours is one of the things I hate about flying.

  22. 11B40 says:

    Greetings:

    I just so hate it when some passive-aggressive miscreant gets so aggressively pacified.

    My dear departed father used to have an expression that he used when one of my “associates went somewhat beyond his pale. “Next time you see your parents,” he would intone, “tell them I said they still have some work to do.”

  23. PogueMahone says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    Am I the only one who dislikes people wearing ANY sort of T-shirt on a plane? Having to sit next to a total slob for three hours is one of the things I hate about flying.

    Then you’d hate sitting next to me. I try to make myself as comfortable as possible – that includes t-shirts, sweat pants, and slip-on shoes.
    Look, thanks to unreasonable TSA “safety” standards, flying is a real hassle. If I were to wear a button-up, pants with belt, and lace-up wing-tips, the TSA would have me practically disrobed before I could walk through screening. As a result, I’m tempted to wear a moo-moo and flip-flops whenever I have to fly.

    What I look for in a fellow passenger I’m forced to sit next to: be quiet and don’t smell of B.O. Also, use the toilet before you board, lest I’m forced to get a face full of either ass or crotch for the many times you visit the lavatory.
    That’s it. I don’t care if whomever sitting next to me has printing on the t-shirt reading, “F*ck you… yeah you, PogueMahone, sitting right next to me. F*ck off and die you prick.” I wouldn’t care. Just as long as you stay quiet, and you don’t smell.
    Cheers.

  24. @PogueMahone:

    Just as long as you stay quiet, and you don’t smell.

    Unfortunately, it’s been my experience that there’s a correlation between things like that and dress.

  25. Katharsis says:

    @Hey Norm:

    Then let’s end their tax payer subsidies.

  26. Catfish says:

    This shows just how far down the sewer that this country has gone. When I was a child, if I said any bad word, I was in for a mouth rinsing with soap and a visit to the hickory stick (I also was never allowed to use the “n” word, and this was the ‘50’s !). Have we gotten so used to this type of total trash that we are now immune to it? This is not about freedom of speech. This woman has the right to wear this trash – in her residence, swing joint, or some motorcycle hang out. Did she not realize that children could see this trash? I once had a coach who was a former Marine sergeant. He never used any bad language around us and said that people who went around doing that had garbage cans for a brain! We are living in the age of total trash!

  27. “Insisting she change it is hardly unreasonable???” Yeah, it is unreasonable. Almost as unreasonable as having a policy where a simple word would cause a confrontation.

    @Just Me
    I would be glad to argue that “the F bomb isn’t obscene” if you will tell me why it is.

  28. Franklin says:

    @11B40: Well, I like your dad’s phrase.

  29. Franklin says:

    @Talmadge East: If you simply look at the definitions of “obscene”, you’ll find that the F bomb fits quite well. For example, it is considered taboo in polite speech by most people. If you don’t think so, you are currently in the distinct minority although I will grant you that someday it may be considered as non-vulgar as ‘scumbag’ is today (see Steven’s post about the evolution of vulgarities if you haven’t already).

    Now, as for whether an airline should be policing T-shirts is a completely different question. They certainly have the right to, but it seems like everybody in the story is stupid. The lady is clearly an attention whore. The pilot seemed to handle it badly, etc.

  30. James Joyner says:

    @delia: that was in the context of PP selling tshirts emblazoned with I Had an Abortion. It’s simply different to brag about killing your baby than reluctantly do so because you view it as the least bad option.

  31. James Joyner says:

    @Ebenezer Arvigenius: we are extremists on the right to express controversial ideas, especially if they have a political content. We also have a Puritanical streak on sex, foul language, and such.

    I’m personally not offended by the F bomb. I use it too frequently. But I know it’s taboo in certain settings.

  32. James Joyner says:

    @Joe Murphy: I was thinking F off.

  33. James Joyner says:

    @Phillip: @Franklin: That particular statement is about the limits of free speech. “Time, place, and manner” is a term of art from decades of Supreme Court rulings.

  34. Carson says:

    @Talmadge East: This person should not have been allowed to board this plane from the start: based on her appearance there is obvious extreme mental agitation and appears very disturbed.

  35. Janet Doe says:

    Although freedom of speech is a fundamental right given to us by the U.S. Constitution
    there are exceptions. The Supreme Court made exceptions and the following are not
    allowed.

    1. obscenity
    2. profanity
    3. libel/slander
    4. fighting words
    5. clear and present danger.