Mayor Thomas M. Menino is cracking down on the Hub’s hard-core hoodlums and even the taunting “Stop Snitchin’ ” T-shirts they wear . . . .
Menino vowed to combat the soaring crime rate. Among the steps: Sending city Inspectional Services Division officials to seize T-shirts emblazoned with the “Stop Snitchin’ ” message.
“It’s wrong,” Menino said. “We are going into every retail store that sells the shirts and remove them.”
The Herald reported the shirts were worn by the mother of a reputed gang member earlier this year during his trial for a shooting that killed 10-year-old Trina Persad.
The mayor did not say what legal authority ISD would cite in seizing the shirts from retailers. . . .
The T-shirts -- which sometimes bear a logo with an octagonal stop sign riddled with bullets -- have surfaced in Boston and cities across the nation including Baltimore and Pittsburg. Officials say the shirts are intended to intimidate witnesses to crime. Store owners say the shirts are a harmless novelty. . . .
Under certain circumstances, wearing a "Stop Snitchin" T-shirt may be intended to threaten certain people with violence, and may be likely to convey such a message; such action may properly be punished (given a properly worded statute), given the threat exception to the First Amendment. Also, court authorities may bar such shirts from being worn in courtrooms, which are not public fora, and which the government as landlord may impose substantial speech restrictions.
But the government may not ban the sale of such T-shirts -- which can of course be used to send nonthreatening (even if repugnant) messages, such as messages of solidarity with thugs, messages that thug culture is cool, or messages that reporting crimes to the police is wrong -- just because of the possibility that the T-shirts may be used to send unprotected threats. And the government certainly may not just seize the shirts without some such legal ban in place (as the ACLU points out, such a seizure would violate the Fourth Amendment and the Due Process Clause as well as the First Amendment). Just as cross-burning is constitutionally protected, unless it's done with the intent to intimidate (and seems likely to achieve this result), so is the sale and wearing of the T-shirts.
Thanks to reader Rich Carreiro for the pointer.