No tea shirts allowed

Sartorial Speech


Is it illegal electioneering to wear a T-shirt advertising the Tea Party movement? When Diane Wickberg went to vote in a May special election in Flagstaff, Arizona, she was wearing a T-shirt bearing an emblem on both sides that included the phrase "We the People," a depiction of the American flag and the U.S. Constitution, and the words "Flagstaff Tea Party—Reclaiming Our Constitution Now." Two poll workers ordered her to change or cover her shirt.

Although Wickberg was permitted to vote, the poll workers told her it was only because no other voters were around. Coconino County Recorder Candace Owens later warned her that she would not be allowed to vote at a polling station in the county again if she wore the shirt. 

The Arizona secretary of state's office disagreed, arguing in a letter that Wickberg's shirt "did not attempt to persuade or influence voters to vote for or against a particular candidate, party or proposition." But Owens wasn't convinced. According to a lawsuit filed in September with the help of the Goldwater Institute, an Arizona-based think tank, Owens stated that "they would be unable to provide any assurance that 'wearing "tea party" apparel will always be permitted at the polls…because every election is unique and every evaluation of a claim of electioneering must be fairly analyzed in the context of each election.'?"

Wickberg wore the shirt again while trying to vote in an August election and was again ordered to cover it. She did so, voted, and was told that in the future wearing a Tea Party T-shirt would mean no chance to vote. The lawsuit charges that threatening to deprive Wickberg of her voting rights for wearing a Tea Party shirt violates her First Amendment right to free expression.