F-bombs and airplanes

The First Amendment goes only so far in realm of private business.

Last week Lorrie Heasley was kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight for wearing a T-shirt featuring the faces of President George W. Bush and others with the phrase “Meet the Fuckers.” This incident brings up many questions regarding infringement on First Amendment rights of individuals by private corporations.

Under the First Amendment an individual is guaranteed the right to express themselves, including their political or religious beliefs and values, how they wish. Heasley has the right to purchase and wear the shirt. However, because Southwest Airlines is a private company, it holds the right to define what is and is not an acceptable way to dress while using their services. Southwest Airlines’ contract of carriage states their rule of refusing to carry passengers with clothing that is “lewd, obscene or patently offensive.” Who determines what is “offensive”? And why is it “offensive”? Was Heasley’s shirt offensive because it used crude language or was inherently political? Reports state that passengers on the same flight as Heasley complained about her shirt and the flight attendants asked her to turn it inside out. When she refused, they escorted her and her husband off the plane while stopped in Reno, Nev. The couple then stayed in a hotel room and drove a rental car home to Oregon.

If Southwest Airlines is going to control what its passengers are wearing, it needs to make its policy more explicit and reimburse customers for the troubles they will face. The deeper issue, however, involves the ever-growing control of corporations in the United States. Every day we are in contact with corporations. If Heasley cannot wear her shirt while traveling on an airline, where can she? Does free speech only apply to public sidewalks and private homes?

Certainly, Southwest Airlines should be put to shame for there policy of kicking off passengers which is more akin to dealing with fighting school kids by having one students expelled from school and another unreprimanded. The Heasley issue makes it clear we aren’t as free as we think we are.