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FIRST-PERSON: T-shirt wearer needs civility training

McMINNVILLE, Ore. (BP)–A Washington state woman was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight Oct. 4 because fellow passengers found a word on her T-shirt to be overly offensive. Her response to the action, according to media reports, is to “press a civil-rights case” against the airline.

Lorrie Heasley of Woodland, Wash., boarded her flight at Los Angeles International Airport sporting a shirt bearing the images of President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and a profane phrase reading “Meet the [expletive]” — a takeoff on a 2004 movie starring Ben Stiller, Robert DeNiro and Barbra Streisand.

When the plane stopped at Reno, several passengers complained about the lewd language on Heasley’s T-shirt. It was then that flight attendants asked her to cover up the profane word.

According to the Reno Gazette-Journal, Heasley indicated that she attempted to conceal the crude communication with a sweatshirt. However, when trying to sleep she said the sweatshirt slipped allowing the indecent expression to be visible.

When flight attendants informed Heasley that she must turn the shirt inside-out or leave, she and her husband left the plane.

After a dispute with the airline over reimbursement for the last leg of their flight, the couple chose to get a hotel in Reno, rent a car and drive back to Washington.

“I will never fly with them [Southwest Airlines] again,” Heasley said. “They can disrespect somebody else.”

While flight attendants could have handled the situation differently, the real problem was created by Ms. Heasley, who believes her right to free speech is absolute.

Scads of people think the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives them the right to act like spoiled brats and communicate anything their heart desires.

They are wrong.

The drafters of the First Amendment intended to protect an individual who wanted to take issue with the government and/or its leaders. They were primarily concerned with protecting political speech, not profanity or pornography.

Through the years, particularly in the latter half of the 20th century, the Supreme Court substantially broadened the understanding of free speech to the point that it now even includes virtual kiddie porn.

However, even with the court’s “enlightened” application of the First Amendment, free speech is not without limits.

The First Amendment is often misunderstood, and people fail to realize that it only protects an individual from action by the government. Freedom of speech does not extend into the private sector.

In the case of Ms. Heasley, Southwest Airlines is a private company and maintains rules that allow it to deny boarding to any customer whose conduct is “offensive, abusive, disorderly or violent or for clothing that is lewd, obscene, or patently offensive.”

Southwest Airlines has the right to ban a passenger wearing an article of clothing emblazoned with lewd language. The only mistake flight attendants made was allowing Heasley on the plane with her crass shirt in the first place.

Even with the Supreme Court’s broadened understanding of free speech, the government has the ability to restrict certain aspects of public communication.

Perhaps the most well-known regulation of speech is time, place and manner. A person does not have the right to yell fire in a crowded building when there is no fire. The government can also enforce noise levels.

Other areas of speech the Supreme Court has said the First Amendment does not protect are obscenity, defamation, “fighting-words” and speech that incites illegal action.

On second thought, people like Ms. Heasley probably need a remedial course in civility rather than a primer on the First Amendment.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines civility as “courteous behavior; politeness.” P.M. Forni, a professor at John’s Hopkins University once wrote, “Civility is key in learning how to live well with others.”

Jesus provided a succinct formula for civility when he instructed, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In other words, treat people the way you want to be treated.

Ms. Heasley’s reaction to her treatment by Southwest Airlines indicates she felt she was treated with a lack of civility. In her words, she was “disrespected.”

I wonder if Ms. Heasley has stopped to ponder how many people she disrespected by her vulgar display? If you want to be treated with respect, you must extend respect.

While the First Amendment provides great latitude in speech, to the point of being offensive, civility requires that we consider others before speaking — or in Ms. Heasley’s case, dressing.
Kelly Boggs is pastor of the Portland-area Valley Baptist Church in McMinnville, Ore. His column appears each Friday in Baptist Press.

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