On April 29 a grassroots army of teenaged billboards, provocatively packaged in combed cotton agitprop, will be deployed across the land. Their goal? Raise consciousness, spark discussion, and, if all goes according to plan, get thrown out of class. The occasion is the sixth annual National Pro-Life T-Shirt Day.
"When school administrators harass students, tell them they can't wear the shirt, it raises awareness," says Erik Whittington, director of Rock for Life, the group that organizes the event. "The media gets ahold of it. The word gets out. The more people who hear the phrase on the shirt, the more we educate people."
This year, Whittington says his organization has big plans. To promote Pro-Life T-Shirt Day, they're creating a Rock for Life website where the young pronatalist participants can network with each other. It'll be like MySpace or Facebook, except that instead of connecting over a common interest in drunken snapshots and copyright infringement, the teens will bond via a shared passion for fetuses. Even with such Web 2.0 accessorizing, however, the key to the event's potency remains the all-powerful T-shirt. "It has abortion in big letters," says Whittington of this year's model. "Then we have three graphics side by side. The first two are images of small children in the womb at early stages. The third image is blank. Under those images, it reads, Growing. Growing. Gone."
Considering all the incendiary polemics that characterize both sides of the abortion divide, this rhetorical dinger is fairly benign. Yet some kind of escalatory alchemy occurs when free speech is wedded to casual wear; the mildly provocative becomes untenable, the sophomoric too obscene to bear. Compared to sexier media devices like, say, the iPhone, T-shirts are pretty clunky. Their storage capacity is limited. They're not Bluetooth-enabled. And yet they boast a sense of intimacy and authority few other content delivery systems can match. They come, after all, with a living, breathing byline attached. They're far more mobile than other forms of meat-space spam, such as billboards and posters; they literally get in your face.
In January of this year, several visitors wearing T-shirts emblazoned with various impeach-Bush-and-Cheney messages claimed that security guards at the National Archives Building—the place where the original version of the First Amendment now resides—barred them from the premises. In 1991, in the wake of the Gulf War, the Kuwaiti government sentenced one man to 15 years in jail simply for wearing a Saddam Hussein T-shirt. Today in the United States, we're far more enlightened: Selling a T-shirt inscribed with the names of military personnel who died in Iraq will only get you a maximum sentence of one year in Louisiana and Oklahoma.
Are you against sodomy or breast cancer? In favor of "hot moms" or John Edwards? In 2007 each of these convictions got at least one high school student kicked out of class. In Wisconsin, Edgerton High School enforces a zero tolerance policy against Insane Clown Posse T-shirts. In Aurora, Illinois, all it takes to earn a trip to the principal's office is a T-shirt with a large dollar sign on it.
How did endorsing capitalism or B-list presidential candidates become so controversial? In the 1980s and '90s, hoping to crack down on intracurricular violence and crime, a growing number of schools resorted to the sartorial communism of dress codes and uniforms. As President Bill Clinton put it in 1996, "If it means that teenagers will stop killing each other over designer jackets, then our public schools should be able to require their students to wear school uniforms." In the wake of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, message T-shirts and any other style of dress that undermined the notion that high school students were the new maximum-security inmates fell under suspicion. In the wake of 9/11—Columbine for adults—this attitude spilled over into our malls, airports, and presidential town hall meetings.
It's not just high school massacres and terrorist attacks that have left us so intolerant of our fellow citizens' chests. During the last decade, pretty much every major media innovation—Fox News, Google, Napster, iTunes, Digg—has involved filtering information more precisely, giving us more and more control over the data we ingest. But that uncompromising raw-foods zealot at the organic farmer's market whose shirt reads "Chewing is murder"? Or the perky fetus hugger who wants you to know that "Mean abortionists suck"? Steve Jobs hasn't figured out a way to delete them from your life yet.
"If people don't want to listen to you, what makes you think they want to hear from your sweater?" the satirist Fran Lebowitz quipped in her 1978 essay collection Metropolitan Life, published when message T-shirts were enjoying their first wave of cultural ubiquity. What this sentiment doesn't acknowledge is that it's exactly because people don't want to listen to us that the drive-by evangelism of T-shirts is so enduring. Body-borne messages can't be muted, fast-forwarded, unsubscribed, banished to the "ignore" list, opted out of, or dumped in the recycle bin. Unlike telemarketers or Jehovah's Witnesses, they don't invade anyone's privacy. Their zero-decibel proselytizing is simultaneously low-key and obtrusive, forcing any innocent bystander we share an elevator with to contemplate our thoughts on gun control, illegal immigration, and the availability of low-cost moustache rides.
Instead of avoiding such encounters with the dye-sublimated Other, we should embrace them as a kind of civic spinach: While we may not enjoy them, they're good for us. In Tinker v. Des Moines, the landmark 1969 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court determined that high school students have a First Amendment right to express political and social opinions in school settings, Justice Abe Fortas observed that "any word spoken, in class, in the lunchroom, or on the campus, that deviates from the views of another person may start an argument or cause a disturbance. But our Constitution says that we must take this risk; and our history says that it is this sort of hazardous freedom—this kind of openness—that is the basis of our national strength and of the independence and vigor of Americans who grow up and live in this relatively permissive, often disputatious society."
In the late 1990s era of no-logo vogue, cultural commentators fretted that the once-democratic medium of the T-shirt had been co-opted by corporations, and that T-shirt buyers were concerned only with raising the planet's Hilfiger consciousness and saving the FUBUs. "The slogans on contemporary T-shirts are increasingly meaningless," the novelist and columnist Russell Smith observed in The Globe and Mail in 2000. "Most of them are simply the brand name of the T-shirt itself."
Now that our T-shirts are so blithely outspoken—and deliberately offensive—on every issue from Medicare to Britney Spears, it sometimes seems as if we'd like to ban our way back to a more sartorially decorous era. Ultimately, however, the T-shirt skirmishes that continuously erupt are oddly reassuring. Can the public schools be as out of control as they're often alleged to be if all it takes to get suspended from one is an "I ? My Wiener" shirt? Has our public sphere grown as hopelessly coarse as our loudest cultural scrub maids insist if a shirt featuring a faux fishing theme and the phrase "Master Baiter" is enough to make Southwest Airlines ground you?
Shouldn't we take comfort in the fact that so many high school students are ready to fight for their right to champion the unborn, maternal hotties, and whatever else they can think of to test the limits of Tinker v. Des Moines? T-shirts may intrude upon our lives in the public sphere, but they're also our most vivid reminder that free speech is woven into the fabric of our culture.
Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer in San Francisco.