T-Shirt of Mass Destruction: JetBlue Responds
Back in August, I wrote about the story of Raed Jarrar, a man who was told by agents at the airport he would not be permitted to board a domestic flight because he was wearing a t-shirt with Arabic on it. A tidbit from Jarrar’s account:
Inspector Harris said: â€œYou donâ€™t have to take of your t-shirt, just put it on inside-outâ€. I refused to put on my shirt inside-out. So the woman interfered and said â€œletâ€™s reach a compromise. I will buy you a new t-shirt and you can put it on on top of this oneâ€. I said â€œI want to keep this t-shirt onâ€. Both inspector Harris and Mr. Harmon said â€œNo, we canâ€™t let you get on that airplane with your t-shirtâ€. I said â€œI am ready to put on another t-shirt if you tell me what is the law that requires such a thing. I want to talk to your supervisorâ€. Inspector Harris said â€œYou donâ€™t have to talk to anyone. Many people called and complained about your t-shirt. Jetblue customers were calling before you reached the checkpoint, and costumers called when you were waiting here in the boarding areaâ€.
McCarthy Watch provides us with a response from JetBlue officials:
Mr. Jarrar was approached both by TSA and JetBlue personnel because they saw that customers in the area had noticed his T-shirt and were confused or concerned about it. In that situation, our crew members have the responsibility to create a safe environment as well as safe travel. If thereâ€™s anything that upsets or confuses our customers, our crew members have to address them. At the same time, they have to respect the rights of the individual and make sure the individual is treated fairly and respectfully. JetBlue personnel approached Mr. Jarrar and explained that customers were concerned or confused, and asked if he could ease the confusion. At no time was he ever denied boarding. He did agree to put another T-shirt on, which we purchased for him, which we really appreciated.
Look at this careful spokesspeak: “at no time was he ever denied boarding.” This is narrowly true, since Jarrar did get on the flight. But JetBlue doesn’t deny that he was told he wouldn’t be able to get on the plane if he kept the shirt on. JetBlue only says that he did eventually get on the plane, which he did after he gave in and put on another shirt. From this response, it has also been clarified that it was not only corporate JetBlue people who detained Jarrar and told him he had to take off his shirt to board the plane. It was also government officials from the Transportation Security Agency. This clearly makes the issue a constitutional one.
Finally, notice the burden of action: “In that situation, our crew members have the responsibility to create a safe environment as well as safe travel. If thereâ€™s anything that upsets or confuses our customers, our crew members have to address them.” The priority has shifted from constitutional rights to a “safe environment” and the resolution of “anything that upsets or confuses our customers.” This is part of a broader cultural and policy shift in America since 2001, a shift that contravenes the Constitution. Under the Constitution, Americans have rights to free assembly and expression. If the expression of those rights upset other people, then they are free to disagree via their own right to assembly and expression — but they can’t make the upsetting expression go away just so they can feel better. Now, against the Constitutional standard, we’re seeing a new approach emerge: if a person engages in a variety of public expression that makes others “upset” or “confused”, even if it does not hinder public safety, even if it is in the quiet and placid form of expression of wearing a simple t-shirt, that person’s expression will be quashed to make other people feel better.
You do not have the Constitutional right to not be “upset” or “confused” when someone wears a t-shirt. But the government in practice is creating that extra-Constitutional right. If people in America can only say what doesn’t upset or confuse someone else, there will be nearly nothing left that we can say.