Are “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts free speech or disruptive expression?
By now, you’ve undoubtedly read or heard about the death of Eric Garner in New York City. He was allegedly selling cigarettes on the street when he was approached by the police on July 17,2014. One officer reached up and grabbed Garner by the neck. He was wrestled to the ground where other officers held him down. He was heard saying eleven times “I can’t breathe” before he passed out. He was pronounced dead at a hospital about an hour later.
A grand jury heard the case and in December, 2014, Officer Daniel Pantaleo was cleared of any responsibility in Garner’s death. This, in spite of the coroner’s finding that the cause of death was a chokehold and chest compressions. Protests and demonstrations against police brutality took place across the country. Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe” were seen on posters, T-shirts and banners.
Some professional basketball players wore shirts during their warm-up exercises displaying these words. Their coaches and the NBA didn’t take any action. One coach said he viewed it as a matter of “freedom of choice and freedom of speech.”
However, a California high school district issued a ban on the shirts during warm-ups during a basketball tournament in December. Threatened with a federal lawsuit, the Fort Bragg School District reversed its policy allowing the T-shirts as long as no disruption on campus occurred.