That was an odd little item, about a rather odd event, in the Sunday Triangle & State section. The headline pretty much told the story: “Sign-wearing man expelled from exhibit of Dead Sea Scrolls.” According to The N&O report, a self-described “provocative social activist” was expelled from the long-running exhibit at the N.C. Museum of Natural Science after refusing to remove a sign bearing the words “Remember Palestinian Oppression,” “Boycott Israel” and “Don't Buy Dead Sea Scroll Tickets.”
One sign, many messages. But agree with them or not, was an injustice done here?
Put another way, did the sign-wearing man really go too far? What limits should apply to free speech inside a public setting (the museum is state-owned)?
I’m inclined to think there are indeed some limits, but I’m not sure that the gentleman in question (who gave his name as D.J. Register of Durham) really violated any that should matter.
Part of my uncertainty has to do with conflicting accounts of what went on here. Our news story, which seems to be based in part on an interview with Register, said he “drew complaints at the museum Friday with a sign on his shirt ...” The WRAL online account said he was wearing a T-shirt with the messages (or perhaps just two of the three) and that he was telling people not to buy tickets.
Reading between the lines, perhaps Register pinned or otherwise placed a sign of some sort on his shirt — rather than, say, carrying a sign on a stick.
That issue is interesting because of the latitude we Americans grant T-shirt messages. They are, literally and figuratively, all over the place. Glimpsing one we don’t like, most of us just look the other way. A sensible ruling from the State Board of Elections a couple of months back made it clear that voters could wear McCain or Obama shirts or other campaign gear into polling places, provided they didn’t sound off about their candidates.
If Register had merely worn an anti-Israel T-shirt, would he have been free to remain inside the museum? My guess is that he would. Certainly he should have been.
(On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine a T-shirt so gross that a museum might ask the wearer to cover it up, citing, perhaps, the presence of young children. That’s a difficult issue, granted. It raises real questions about allowing some messages and not others. But if a museum can insist on standards of conduct -- no yelling; must wear shoes -- can’t it also have a general standard for taste, provided it steers clear of censoring political statements?)
(Which of course raises the issue of the shirt that declares “F--- Israel.”)
But Register didn’t merely wear a T-shirt, apparently. He had a sign of some sort.
In that case, officials may have decided he crossed a bright line: no signs in our museum. If the museum has such a policy, surely it must be “content neutral” -- all physical signs are banned, no matter what they say.
That would be a lawyerly solution, and it does make sense. But if Register was merely standing with, say, a paper pinned to his shirt that proclaimed his distaste for Israel and the Scrolls exhibit, applying such a ban also seems like an injustice. Provided he was willing to step to the side — don’t block the patrons’ paid-for view — what harm had he done?
There are other aspects to this. One is that The N&O story said “Museum officials say Register’s statement was considered protesting in a state government building without a permit. But Register said he was only exercising his personal opinion.”
As they said in the Sixties, the personal is political. How to tell the difference, if there is one? Should it make a difference to the First Amendment whether you're protesting inside or out? And could a body actually obtain such a permit?
“I’d like to stand inside the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit and wear a sign that says 'Don’t Buy Dead Sea Scroll Tickets.' ”
(You’d think the place for such a message would be outside the ticket booth, but never mind).
Such a request would be a challenge to the permit-granters. Would would their answer be? What’s yours?