Sunday, December 28, 2014

The "Shut Up" Approach to Free Speech

Above is a picture of a much-sought fashion item this season.  It quotes the last words Eric Garner uttered before he lost consciousness and died in a police chokehold in New York last summer.

Some versions of the shirt also have words on the back -- "thanks to the NYPD."

The words on the shirts are a form of speech, a reflection of the wearers' point of view.  They have inspired various reactions, and led a whole lot of people to try to make other people shut up.  

High School Players

The most recent shutter-uppers are the administrators at a high school in Northern California that is sponsoring a basketball tournament.  They do not want participants to wear "I can't breathe" warmup shirts -- not uniforms, just warmup shirts -- before the games.  

One school district was knocked out of the tournament because its student players refused to accede to the requirement.  

Naturally, the sponsoring school said it was shutting up players for their own good.  Here's a statement it released:  "To protect the safety and well-being of all tournament participants it is necessary to ensure that all political statements and or protests are kept away from this tournament."

Got that?  Words on t-shirts could threaten the safety of high school students.  I don't get it either.


A police officer in Indiana decided to put his own response to the "I can't breathe" message on t-shirts and has sold thousands of them, working on his own time.  Below is a sample.
The second line of the message is "Don't break the law." The policeman/designer's point, he has explained, is that people can be confident that police will protect them.

For this, several members of the city council in his town want him to shut up.  They released a statement saying he needs to shut up because the message on his shirts "damages the goal of unity and further divides our community."

I haven't read the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution in several years and so I may be missing something here, but I don't recall either saying anything about a "goal of unity."  Maybe it's just an Indiana thing.

Back in New York, city policemen are angry at the way they have been portrayed, and now more than 100 cops have purchased their own shirt expressing this view.  Many wore the shirts in a recent demonstration titled "Blue Lives Matter," a response to demonstrations titled "Black Lives Matter."  One of the shirts is below.

The second line of the message on this shirt is "because I obey and respect the law." Another version has "thanks to the NYPD" as its second line -- a direct response to the message of the shirt at the top of this article.

Many members of the NYPD believe the mayor's response to the Eric Garner situation encouraged a crazed man to shoot two officers dead last week.  On several occasions, policemen have turned their backs on the mayor as he walks by.  This too is a form of speech, and of course city officials want the cops to stop it -- effectively, to shut up. 

Free Speech

For years, our leaders have told us that we need to have "a conversation" about policing and racial justice, but in fact the leaders themselves talked in vague platitudes and expected the rest of us to keep any dissonant thoughts to ourselves.  The message was that we needed to keep our mouths shut.

Finally, the dam has burst.  We're having the long-delayed conversation in t-shirt messages and demonstrations.  It's contentious and many people are offended, but it may be the only way forward.  


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