Toledo Teen Loses the T-Shirt Off His Back

Affiliate: ACLU of Ohio
August 7, 1999 12:00 am

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TOLEDO, OH — When 13-year-old Daniel Shellhammer left his grandmother’s house in Northwood to buy soft drinks with a friend, he gave little thought to the T-shirt he was wearing — until he was confronted by a police officer who made him remove it.

Shellhammer told the Toledo Blade that police officers took his T-shirt, promoting the concert tour of the rap group Insane Clown Posse, and threatened to arrest him.

According to Shellhammer, who will be entering the 8th grade at Toledo’s Jones Junior High School this year, two officers got out of the department’s Drug Abuse Resistance Education vehicle and another emerged from a police cruiser.

He said Officer Joe Conley, the department’s DARE officer, did most of the talking.

“He told me to take off my shirt. I asked him why and [Officer Conley] said because it had cuss words on the back,” the teenager told the Blade. “He was in my face telling me that if I didn’t take off the shirt that I was going to jail.”

Shellhammer said he offered to take the shirt off and to wear it inside out to hide the obscenities. But the officer insisted that he hand over the shirt, he said.

“He told me that if I didn’t take it off then ‘I am going to rip it off you,'” said Shellhammer, who reluctantly complied with the officer’s demands and handed over the shirt.

Another sergeant told them that anything involving Insane Clown Posse is not allowed in Northwood, Shellhammer told the Blade.

Christine Link, Executive Director of the Ohio affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the officers violated Shellhammer’s rights. She told the Blade that the language, no matter how obscene, is protected as speech under the First Amendment.

“These kids have an absolute right to wear the T-shirts. They were not in the wrong,” she said.

One police officer said the T-shirt worn by young Shellhammer was “very offensive.”

“That is not freedom of speech. Freedom of speech has to have a purpose. There is no purpose to that,” he told the Blade. “You can’t be wearing that out in public.”

Alex Abbiss, manager of Insane Clown Posse, had a different view. “It is ironic that the police, who are supposed to protect and serve, are impeding young people’s rights to freedom of expression,” he told the Blade.

Sexual expression in art and entertainment is, and has historically been, the most frequent target of censorship crusades, from James Joyce’s classic Ulysses to the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, according to the ACLU.

The Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment’s protection of artistic expression very broadly. It extends not only to books, theatrical works and paintings, but also to posters, television, music videos and comic books — whatever the human creative impulse produces.

Two fundamental principles come into play whenever a court must decide a case involving freedom of expression. The first is “content neutrality” — the government cannot limit expression just because any listener, or even the majority of a community, is offended by its content. In the context of art and entertainment, this means tolerating some works that we might find offensive, insulting, outrageous — or just plain bad.

The second principle is that expression may be restricted only if it will clearly cause direct and imminent harm to an important societal interest. The classic example is falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater and causing a stampede. Even then, the speech may be silenced or punished only if there is no other way to avert the harm.

Visit the ACLU’s Free Speech issue page for more information about freedom of expression in the arts and entertainment: /issues/freespeech/hmfs.html.

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