The Politics of T-Shirts and Fallen Soldiers

| 12/20/2007 4:52:01 PM

Tags: politicizing soldiers, anti-war T-shirts, anti-war T-shirt bans, free speech, anti-war free speech, political speech, protecting political speech, protecting free speech,

They DiedA recent article in Reason about bans on certain anti-war T-shirts made me think back on one of the saddest events of the past year for me. A friend from high school was killed in Iraq in January, and his family threw a good-bye party at the local watering hole for his friends to get together, drink, and tell funny stories about a kid we’d never see again. If you’re lucky enough to have never been to one of these memorials, there are a few things you should know. First, the venues tend to have one of two things in common: a close proximity to God (churches, synagogues, etc.) or easy access to booze (typically a bar or a VFW with a bar). Second, they’re heartrending. Dead young people always are. But the context—a violent death in a faraway country—gives them an even sadder underpinning. Third, there are T-shirts for sale. Always T-shirts. The proceeds usually go to the soldier’s family or a charity—both deserving recipients. 

Sadly, this tradition of memorializing dead soldiers is in iffy legal standing in a handful of states. The legal battle began with a Flagstaff, Arizona, anti-war protester who was selling T-shirts that read “Bush Lied...They Died” superimposed over the names of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. An Oklahoma mother, whose son is one of the soldiers named on the shirt, raised objections. In response, Oklahoma legislators imposed a ban on merchandise containing soldiers’ names and images in April 2006. Louisiana, Texas, and Florida all followed suit. And in May 2007, Arizona legislators unanimously passed a bill (free registration required) that made the commercial use of soldiers’ names and images without the consent of their families a misdemeanor crime. But, as Reason notes, “Such bans are almost certainly unconstitutional, since the shirts, though exchanged for money, are clearly political speech.”

Bush LiedThough prohibitions on the state level have weathered considerable opposition—in September a federal judge in Arizona issued a preliminary injunction against the law—U.S. Representatives Dan Boren (R-OK) and Charles Boustany (R-LA) pushed for a national ban in the House version of the 2008 Defense Authorization bill. Amid objections from the American Civil Liberties Union (pdf) and other free-speech advocacy groups, the ban didn’t survive the House/Senate conference committee that hashed out a compromised bill. The issue is far from dead, however. The conference committee requested independent studies by the Secretary of Defense and the Congressional Research Service focusing on legal reviews of the proposal.

Such laws, either on a state or federal level, are not only an infringement on free speech; they paint the grieving families of fallen soldiers—or anybody else, for that matter—as un-American if they come out against the war. If proponents of these misguided laws can somehow reconcile their cliché-ridden idea of the “ultimate sacrifice”—which these families have certainly made—with unpatriotic behavior, I’d love to see it. Until then, legislators should keep their laws off our dead friends.

Morgan Winters

12/28/2007 9:27:37 AM

i think the t-shirts are a part of free speech. if arizona thinks they should stop using soldiers names without their families permission, how about banning war memorials? would that be acceptable? (and by the way, the memorials ARE being sold. contractors are paid to make them.) KEEP YOUR LAWS OFF MY FREE SPEECH-- oops, too late.

liz thomson
12/27/2007 3:56:59 PM

IN my opinion - Tshirts and other antiwar statements - should be left alone - they are , in essence free speech. A lot of those who have not experienced the death of a son/daughter/friend, tend ignore the realities of death - what it is - its violence, its permanence - its ability to destroy families and more. IT is time we all woke up . These young people are being sent to war - they are dying - THEY DIED.

12/27/2007 2:55:16 PM

"......military men are dumb stupid animals to be used as pawns in foreign policy....." henry kissinger sec.of state (nixon add.) from 'the final days' war criminal extrodinaire and truly pathetic human being

12/27/2007 2:15:45 PM

"""Most have a choice when it comes to being shipped to a war zone, Posted by: Maggie katzen""" Except of course all the National Guard that signed up to protect their home state from floods and such, and then got sent to war.

maggie katzen
12/27/2007 1:53:11 PM

um, yeah, much better to use the dead as political props for your own agenda. Most have a choice when it comes to being shipped to a war zone, seeing as how there isn't a draft in place. Please leave the dead in peace.

12/21/2007 8:20:29 AM

"legislators should keep their laws off our dead friends." Yeah - that's a slogan that makes me actually want to be a libertarian. But seriously, one of the most horrible things about war, I think (besides the death and the PTSD and the death) is that it turns normal human beings into pawns of politics. It seems less damaging to a person's selfhood to have their name printed on a picture than to have them transported into a warzone, right?