By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Not so fast

Media Nation reader Harvey Silverglate points out that I was too quick to endorse Boston Police Commissioner Kathleen O’Toole’s approach in urging merchants to stop selling T-shirts that say “Stop Snitchin.”

In fact, in a letter (PDF file) to O’Toole and Mayor Tom Menino, ACLU officials Carol Rose and John Reinstein note that the not-so-gentle art of police persuasion can be considered just as much an abridgment of the First Amendment as yanking the shirts off the store shelf and slapping handcuffs on the proprietor. Rose and Reinstein write:

Over forty years ago, in Bantam Books, Inc. v. Sullivan, 372 U.S. 58 (1963), the United States Supreme Court held that this type of official pressure to eliminate objectionable material violates the First Amendment. In that case, a state created commission had circulated to bookstores a list of publications which it considered objectionable. The notice sent by the commission solicited or thanked the booksellers in advance for their “cooperation” and reminded them that obscenity could be prosecuted. The result was that the objectionable books were no longer offered for sale. In the Supreme Court, the commission argued that it did not regulate or suppress the books, but simply exhorted booksellers not to offer them for sale. The Court disagreed. Although the commission had no formal power, it “deliberately set out to achieve the suppression of publications deemed ‘objectionable’ and succeeded in its aim.”

The T-shirts’ message, needless to say, is completely irresponsible, and could help contribute to an atmosphere of intimidation that makes it harder to solve murders and other violent crimes. No store owner should carry them. But that’s a different issue.


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7 Comments

  1. Chuck Tanowitz

    Actually Dan, your last point isn’t an entirely different issue. I think that is the core issue.It’s one thing for an official organization such as the police to “request” that stores stop carrying an item. It is quite another for the society itself to make that determination. Store owners carry items because they sell. If they don’t sell, or if they hurt business in some other way, they just won’t carry them. Pretty simple.It’s up to the people who frequent these stores to take action. If the police want to help, perhaps meetings with community leaders to encourage grassroots campaigns, be that protests or boycotts. If the community itself doesn’t want to take action, then there’s a much larger issue to address.

  2. Anonymous

    What part of “moot point” is not understood here? If the agenda is to protect the “civil rights” of people who may not live to enjoy them, who cares? (“The operation was a success but the patient died”). Ask some of the mothers in Grove Hall if their first concern is civil liberties or survival. With all due respect to Chuck above, how have those meetings and protests been working out for you so far?

  3. Chuck Tanowitz

    To continue your analogy from above, Mr. Anonymous, the t-shirts are the symptom, not the disease. Careful you don’t slip on that slope when you start abridging first amendment rights in the name of justice. A murky area to be sure, but using police pressure to limit what a store can sell clearly falls on the dark side.I agree that the stores shouldn’t sell them. I agree that they’re distasteful and would never own one. But when it comes to putting pressure on stores to pull them out, do we really want to see the Boston police doing that?

  4. Anonymous

    Ah, yes actually. Kills me to admit it but Howie Carr had it right the other day. Menino was stupid to telegraph his intentions to the shirt purveyors. He should have taken a page out of Kevin White’s book and used Parking Enforcement, ISD and any other city agency available to make the guy’s life miserable. This slug obviously has no respect for the law so “Plan B” was called for. This stuff happens every day in Boston, (try parking near Doyle’s sometime). Kids get their bikes back, taggers pick a new spot for their art, some drug dealers develop a limp. Only a fool brings a knife to a gunfight. Things long ago escalated beyond naive philosophical considerations as the FIRST issue. If your world view holds that civil liberties will cure MS13 and their ilk, we will never agree. If you really want to see the “dark side”, take a trip to Ruthven St. this weekend. Ask a 30 year old grandmother whether she’s concerned about free speech or her family being murdered.

  5. Anonymous

    Boston is the most segregated large city in America. There is largely no middle or upper middle class black population. T-Shirts are meaningless. The real question is why nobody talks about Boston’s little secret.

  6. Provincial Congress

    The impotence of our politically correct leadership continues to shock, though not surprise.The Constitution isn’t a suicide pact, and the First Amendment didn’t repeal the crime of obstruction of justice. Just ask Scooter Libby. Intimidating witnesses to prevent justice being done for murder is a horrible crime. It keeps criminals on the streets, leads victims to take private retribution, cries out for private social vigilance and creates a cycle of violence.If you go to the Stop Snitchin’ website, you’ll see clear evidence that the sellers of this merchandise intend the message to be used to intimidate witnesses: there’s the Herald article, the posts in the guestbook, and songs like “Shoot ‘Em On Site”. Picketing or parading to influence a witness is illegal (MGL 268.13A). Intimidation and implied threats of force against a witness is a felony (268.13B). Attempting to incite a person to commit perjury is a felony (268.3). Criminal harrassment (265.43A) is a felony. Aiding a felony, or being an accessory even by counsel to a felony before the fact, is a felony (274.2).If kids are wearing this shirt in a manner which intimidates particular witnesses, they should be arrested. Let the grand jury decide whether the kids should be indicted or treated as unindicted co-conspirators, and precisely how many counts to charge the shirt sellers with.

  7. Gary McGath

    Menino’s intimidation campaign was successful; two stores have pulled the shirts. Perhaps he followed the advice of “Anonymous” and made a few quiet threats to the store owners. In any event, we are now no safer from the thugs who roam the streets than before, but we are in more danger from the Boston city government, which can only have been encouraged by the effectiveness of its threat.

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