Free Speech

Visitors Wearing "Abolish ICE" T-Shirts Barred from Statue of Liberty

Unconstitutional viewpoint-discrimination, and the Park Service has acknowledged it was a mistake.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Gothamist (Jake Offenhartz) reports:

A pair of New Yorkers hoping to pay a visit to the Statue of Liberty last month say they were ordered by federal employees to change out of their "Abolish ICE" t-shirts before approaching the monument. When the couple refused, security guards escorted them out of line for their pre-paid tour—a decision that the National Park Service now admits was a "misstep," and one that qualifies as illegal viewpoint discrimination, according to the NYCLU [New York Civil Liberties Union]….

According to [one of the visitors], the … security guards cited "what happened on July 4th" as a justification for the ejection—presumably referring to Therese Patricia Okoumou, who was arrested after she scaled the Statue of Liberty and refused to leave until "all the children have been released." Earlier in the day, Okoumou had participated in a demonstration in which a dozen protesters unfurled an "Abolish ICE" banner on the statue's observation deck….

The Gothamist reports that the National Park Service "acknowledged that blocking access to the Statue of Liberty over a political t-shirt is a form of viewpoint discrimination, according to the NYCLU," and that the Service "told Gothamist that 'this never should've happened,' adding that 'it's pretty clear from our standpoint that we don't restrict free speech.' … 'It was certainly a misstep on our part and we're happy that the couple has elected to take up our invitation to come back' …."

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  1. However, the ban on climbing gear is still in effect.

    1. If someone shows up carry a lot of rope and stuff they should probably be suspicious, regardless of what kind of shirt the visitor is wearing.

  2. So now maybe they’ll come back wearing something more appropriate, like t-shirts saying “cancel white people.”

    Yeah, I get it. It /was/ viewpoint discrimination and they have a right, and I’d pay into a fund to help protect it. And the Park Service has ultimately done the right thing. But I just can’t get bent out of shape when people pushing their political views on strangers encounter stumbling blocks.

    1. These two weren’t pushing anything. They were just wearing shirts.

    2. You mean like wearing a “MAGA” cap, or a “Vote for Phoghorn” button?

  3. This one doesn’t necessarily seem like viewpoint discrimination, more like overly broad profiling. Suppose the Park Service received a tip that someone was planning to scale the Statue while wearing an “Abolish ICE” t-shirt that day. Then, subjecting people wearing such t-shirts to extra scrutiny would not seem like viewpoint discrimination per se, but just screening people that happen to match a physical description. The Park Service would not be stopping people based on the *meaning* of the speech. Even asking people to change out of the t-shirt *for purposes of removing the incentive to scale the Statue* would be different from banning the shirts for purposes of suppressing speech content. In this case, admittedly, the Park Service did err because they weren’t acting on specific enough intelligence. There’s a difference between censoring of speech and overly broad profiling.

    1. The question is whether viewpoint discrimination requires discrimination because of a particular viewpoint or just of those who express a particular viewpoint.

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