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.