The Uses and Abuses of the First Amendment
Not being a hipster, I don’t always get around to reading every issue of Vice in a timely manner. Or wait — do hipsters read anything in a timely manner? It’s only ever “before you read it” or “once it’s retro.” Which this month’s issue isn’t gonna be, in either case.
My aim was to create garments that the majority of the US citizenry would find offensive and, more specifically, submit designs so despicable that most custom-tee printers would refuse to print them. Still, my ultimate goal was to find a willing printer and get the shirts made no matter what. Mark Twain, perhaps the quintessential American author, once wrote: “Nature knows no indecencies; man invents them.” Each entrepreneur who refused my business would define yet another instance of American indecency and chip away at the bedrock of liberty as we know it.
I began by setting some guidelines: The topics of racism, sexism, and politics were deemed too easy for this exercise, primarily because online retailers already provide a bountiful selection of knee-jerk schlock marketed to college students and bigots. I also afforded myself the luxury of ratcheting up the viciousness of the shirt designs if the printer proved too eager to accept the initial unseemly idea.
I am happy to report that the First Amendment prevailed and every one of my ideas—even when pushed past the limits of my own morals and common sense—was eventually affixed to a t-shirt for around $20 a pop (except for one pricy exception). Sure, it took enduring a little verbal abuse and a bit of shopping around, but I believe our forefathers would be proud that even today the combined forces of capitalism and free speech triumph over America’s prudish moral quibbles.
Which is misconceived on so many levels. Even aside from the overwriting, which I kind of take for granted at Vice. (Citizenry? Define yet another instance?)
It doesn’t prove much about the First Amendment that you can get a t-shirt printed, even an offensive one. It wouldn’t prove much if you couldn’t get a t-shirt printed. The First Amendment doesn’t provide a right to commercial service or message placement. It doesn’t provide a right to offend, or a right not to be offended, or an obligation for anyone to squash their own feelings of offense. Not on their own property, anyway.
This being Vice, the shirt ideas are pretty damn offensive (and one or two are kind of funny, once you get the joke). The most offensive thing to me, however, is that some business owners seem to believe that the First Amendment directs them to print things even when they don’t want to. The author certainly does:
I explained that the t-shirt I wanted to print had the potential to get a person killed, or at the very least severely maimed, if it was worn while walking around the sordid streets of NYC. She replied, “We’ll print anything. We don’t care.”
…I sent it off and waited for an infuriated phone call. Twenty minutes passed and my phone rang. It was another employee (or perhaps the owner?) of the print shop, this time a male. He told me he did not appreciate my sense of humor. I insisted that it wasn’t necessarily supposed to be funny and questioned his appreciation of the Constitution of the United States of America. In a fit of rage he stuttered before spitting out “You motherfucker!” and hanging up the phone.
At least he didn’t print the shirt. Good for him.