Whether a t-shirt calling for the execution of journalists or using a choice expletive to describe the President of the United States, where should an airline draw the line in permissible onboard attire?
A man boarded a United flight from Los Angeles to Boston yesterday wearing a shirt stating:
Rope. Tree. Journalist.
Some Assembly Required.
Horrible, isn’t it? While such a slogan may play into the fearmongering of demagogues, calling for the murder of anyone is offensive…disgustingly offensive.
— Jessica Sidman (@jsidman) October 11, 2019
A passenger complained, stating he “didn’t want one passenger threatening to kill other passengers.” After flight attendants conferred with the captain, security boarded the plane…to explain to the offended passenger that they could not do anything about the t-shirt, but he was welcome to take another flight.
United’s dress code policy allows for the removal of passengers “who are barefoot or not properly clothed”.
Gary Leff thinks “not properly clothed” means not properly covered, but I read it as a the same broader catch-all provision that both American and Delta have.
American Airlines’ dress code policy prohibits “offensive” clothing but does not define offensive.
Dress appropriately; bare feet or offensive clothing aren’t allowed.
Meanwhile, Delta reserves the right to remove passengers:
When the passenger’s conduct, attire, hygiene or odor creates an unreasonable risk of offense or annoyance to other passengers.
Again, “offense” is not defined and annoyance + offense creates a very malleable policy.
When Is The Line Crossed?
I thought about discussing how the U.S. Supreme Court has wrestled with what is obscene and what is not. The First Amendment does not apply to United Airlines, a private company, yet such discussion is instructive in trying to probe where the line should be drawn.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter because whether something “lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value” is also ultimately very arbitrary.
It’s up to airlines to define what crosses the lines and what does not. As convenient as it is to take a “I know when I see it” approach to what is impermissible, that really leaves passengers in a difficult position.
I’m sure Aubrey O’Day sincerely believed her message of “F— Trump” was a proper and valid statement of political expression. I’m also sure the man flying to Boston yesterday sincerely believes that mainstream journalism in the United States is an enemy to the people.
And frankly I am so internally divided to the point where I want to throw up my hands and become even more cynical.
I find both shirts vulgar and inappropriate. Using foul language or calling for murder should have no place in our public discourse.
But they do. We live in the world we do, not the world we want. And frankly, my mind has been so desensitized in this culture that my reaction to coarse language and death threats is just to look away rather than become offended at the jejune levels of civility.
There is no bright line of right and wrong when we live in a post-modern culture in which the internet and social media has made it easier than ever for everyone to create a god in their own image and construct a subjective reality with blinders to any divergent viewpoints.
Ok, I’ll step off my soapbox.
Airlines Should Be Clear
I just hate the loose language airlines use in restricting onboard clothing. Wherever airlines decide to draw the line, they should be clear about it. Which swear words are permitted and which ones are not? Can a shirt advocate for death or bodily harm? What about obscene images or words which resemble bad words? (French Connection United Kingdom, anyone?).
I say better to have clearly defined rules (which still would likely leave gray areas) than a vast gray area of uncertainty.
Are people who wear shirts that upset others rude and inconsiderate or are people who are offended too easily offended? Who knows….
That’s why we need clearer standards…so it doesn’t matter who is offended and who is not. Because right now, what goes and what doesn’t is up to the arbitrary whim of the gate agent, flight attendant, or captain.