Tee shirts

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(HOST)Like many Vermonters, Commentator Cheryl Hanna was disturbed to learn that some people were escorted out of the President’s State of the Union address for wearing T-Shirts and has an idea about what to do about it.

(HANNA) Cindy Sheehan was arrested last week during the President’s State of the Union address for wearing a T-Shirt that said “2245 Dead. How Many More?” Sheehan, who lost her son
in the Iraqi war, was handcuffed in the House Gallery, arrested, and charged with disorderly conduct despite doing nothing that was disruptive.

Beverly Young, wife of Florida Republican Congressman Bill Young, was also asked to leave the House Gallery. Her T-Shirt said “Support the Troops – Defending Our Freedom.” Young
wasn’t arrested or charged even though the police accused
her of protesting, to which Young replied if they thought
her message was a protest, they were idiots.

The charges against Sheehan have since been dropped and the Capital Chief of Police has apologized for policies and procedures that he now admits are too vague.

This kind of vague directive to squash messages that government may not approve of not only violated the first amendment rights of Sheehan and Young, but also the rest of us who are left to guess what T-shirts could land us in jail.

Such incidents normally discourage folks from engaging in political speech, not wearing t-shirts, but in this case, the government’s reaction hopefully will have the opposite effect.

You see, had the police done nothing, there’d be no story. They turned what was, at its worst, a fashion faux paux, into an act of civil disobedience. Sheehan would maybe have been covered on the back pages of the paper or Glamour Magazine’s list of fashion do’s and don’ts. But now she and her shirt are headline news. It’s possible that more people know about Sheehan’s message than know what President Bush talked about during the state of the union address.

And asking Young to leave the gallery was perfect – the American Civil Liberties Union couldn’t have scripted it better.

The President, whether he had anything to do with this particular incident or not, certainly deserves some credit for creating such a chilly chilly climate for free speech. From spying on war protestors to monitoring what we read in our local library, free speech it seems, has become unfashionable.

So maybe what happened at the state of union address will inspire
a fashion revolution. Although not normally my preferred fashion statement, I may start wearing T-Shirts with slogans on them, whether I’m attending a political event or just heading to the supermarket. I don’t think it matters so much if the message is liberal or conservative. It could be “Health Care for All,” or “Keep the Government off My Land.” It could proclaim “I (Heart) George and Laura” or “Hillary for President.” But I think a T-Shirt should say something you believe, something you want to say without fear of being silenced. And in that case, my T-Shirt will be simple. White with black letters that says “Never Take Free Speech for Granted.”

This is Cheryl Hanna.

Cheryl Hanna is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton.

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