December 7, 2005

No Mere Tempest in a T-Shirt

Violent crime, including homicides, is up in Boston, as are fears of witness intimidation. The appearance of T-shirts bearing the slogan "Stop Snitchin'" understandably raised the ire of Mayor Thomas Menino and the police, as well as victims of crime, witnesses, and their families. They fear that such shirts, sported, presumably, by gang members or others on the wrong side of the law, will intimidate witnesses from coming forward or testifying at trial.

The mayor came out harshly against not just the shirts but the vendors selling them, stating at one point that he would send city officials into stores to remove the shirts from shelves. Later, police officers actually visited stores and "asked" merchants to stop selling the shirts. And what do you know ... They seem to have complied.

Such tactics of coercion and intimidation amount to nothing less than censorship, in clear violation of the First Amendment. The ACLU was right to come out swinging in a press release and letter to the mayor and the police commissioner.

As reprehensible as the message is, it is speech nonetheless, and is entitled to First Amendment protection, free from governmental censorship or restraint.

Perhaps the mayor would do well to remember that sunshine, not censorship, is the best disinfectant. More speech. Not less. Certainly the mayor is free to urge boycotts of merchants selling the shirts, and he should encourage members of the community to make their feelings known. (Indeed, now that the shirts have had some publicity, members of the community have spoken out against them and implored merchants not to sell them.) But threatening to pull shirts from shelves, and sending police officers or other city officials to visit stores to "suggest" that the shirts be pulled is over the line.

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