In Boston, a T-Shirt Raises the Mayor's Ire

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

In Boston, a T-Shirt Raises the Mayor's Ire

In Boston, Mayor Thomas Menino is taking aim at T-shirts in gang-ridden neighborhoods that read: "Stop Snitchin'." Today's Boston Globe published this editorial about the mayor's efforts to stop people from wearing the shirt:
The Menino administration should avoid coercion during its effort to discourage the sale of the controversial ''Stop Snitchin' " T-shirts. The shirts carry an especially reprehensible message in urban neighborhoods marred by gang violence. But it is a message nonetheless, and as such it falls directly under the protection of the First Amendment.

... Last year, spectators adorned in such [T-shirts] were ejected from a Suffolk County courtroom during a murder trial. Now Mayor Menino is frustrated by reports that terrified witnesses are refusing to testify, allowing violent criminals to overwhelm neighborhoods. Menino is even threatening to use city employees to seize the T-shirts from retail outlets.

Police and city inspectors should play no role in efforts to remove the shirts from circulation. The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is right to point out in a recent letter to Menino that proposed visits to retail stores by uniformed police would be ''a form of official censorship which is fundamentally inconsistent with the constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression." The ACLU's legal director, John Reinstein, says that mailing a ''Stop Snitchin' " T-shirt to a specific potential witness would call for a response from law enforcement. But walking down the street in the same shirt is well within individual rights.

There is no reason, however, to sit idly by when residents suspect that the T-shirts are being used as a means to exert control through fear. In such cases, good speech is the right weapon to overpower bad.

On Saturday, the local manufacturer of ''Stop Snitchin' " T-shirts agreed voluntarily to pull the item from his shelves ....

The Legislature should make careful note of the frustration that is driving this controversy. An anticrime bill that would strengthen the laws against witness intimidation and provide funds for witness protection has passed the Senate but still awaits action by the House. Like entrepreneurs in gang-infested areas, lawmakers need to listen to the citizens' appeals for help.

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