Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing — unless, it seems, you’re wearing your views on your clothes while on a plane.
On Monday, a woman wearing a T-shirt that read “If I wanted the government in my womb, I’d f--- a senator” on an American Airlines flight was reportedly told by the captain that she should not have been allowed to board and would need to change her shirt before boarding a connecting flight.
According to a story first reported by RH Reality Check, the woman, identified only as “O,” was flying home from Washington, D.C., when a flight attendant told her she needed to speak to the captain.
“When I was leaving the plane the captain stepped off with me and told me I should not have been allowed to board the plane in D.C. and needed to change before boarding my next flight,” she told RH Reality Check. “This conversation led to me missing my connecting flight.”
In response, American spokesman Tim Smith replied via e-mail: “The only reason she was asked to cover up her T-shirt was the appearance of the 'F-word' on the T-shirt. The [pro-choice] message is irrelevant to our policy and had no bearing in our crew’s decision to ask her to cover up the F-word. The outcome would have been exactly the same had the message been anti-abortion.”
Smith also cited the airline’s contract of carriage, the legal document that governs a carrier’s procedures regarding transporting passengers. It states that the airline may refuse transport or remove a passenger from a flight if, among other things, a passenger is “clothed in a manner that would cause discomfort or offense to other passengers.”
In fact, most airlines’ contracts of carriage include such clauses, although the language is sometimes open to interpretation. Southwest’s policy refers to clothing that is “lewd, obscene or patently offensive,” while Delta and US Airways simply refer to “not properly” or “inappropriately” clothed.
How such rules intersect with freedom of speech is also open to debate. “I doubt there’s any airline limitation on the First Amendment,” said San Francisco attorney Joe O’Sullivan, who represented University of New Mexico football player Deshon Marman last year after Marman was arrested over a disagreement about his saggy pants on a US Airways flight.
“The irony in the current case,” said O’Sullivan, “is that she went through several layers of personnel and was allowed to fly. It wasn’t until the conclusion of the flight that the ‘teacher’ criticized her.”
However, says Jeff Miller, a travel attorney in Columbia, Md., the pilot in this case was within his rights. “The bottom line is that the pilot controls the aircraft,” he told msnbc.com. “If the captain thinks other passengers may get upset, it becomes a safety issue.”
Which, it should be noted, it did not. After missing her connecting flight, “O” was given a seat on a later flight, which she boarded with a shawl over her T-shirt.
Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.
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