Athens, GA Police Escort People From Gym Over Shirts Sympathetic to Alleged Murderers

From the Athens Banner-Herald comes a report of two people escorted by Athens, Georgia police officers from a high school basketball game because they wore t-shirts apparently sympathetic to alleged murderers.  The article does not suggest that either of the two expelled persons disrupted the event or otherwise acted unruly.  They simply wore t-shirts, one depicting a photograph of Andre Ruff smoking marijuana and the other depicting mug shots of Ruff and Cormaine Goss.  Both shirts included the slogan “free my family,” and one of the people wearing the shirts is apparently related to Goss.  Ruff and Goss were recently arrested on charges of murdering a student at the University of Georgia.

In the Saturday incident at Cedar Shoals High School, an Athens-Clarke County police officer saw the two people inside the gymnasium immediately after the game ended, and according to the police report, “made contact with Goss and Burton to encourage them to go ahead and leave the premises.” The men were escorted out of the gym by two police officers, and once outside. according to the report, “Burton complied” but “Goss hesitated before leaving; he said no one could stop him from wearing the t-shirt.”

Goss was told by one of the officers that “he would not be allowed to attend an event on campus wearing anything gang related.”

The report goes on to note that “Goss suggested that I bar him (from the Cedar Shoals campus); he told me I would not see him anymore.” Subsequently, the officer did bar Goss from the campus for two years.

While restrictions on wearing gang-related paraphernalia have been upheld in the context of probation, I am unaware of any case which would tend to support the notion that the government may determine, on the spot, that particular clothing is gang-related and may be proscribed.  Written policies in high schools prohibiting “gang-related apparel” have been struck down on vagueness grounds.  In that case, the policy — which was at least written – was used to prohibit students from wearing rosaries on the basis that security officers had seen known gang members wearing rosaries.  Acts by law enforcement to expel people from public events on the basis of their clothing invites arbitrary (and likely discriminatory) application; that it is done without the guidance of a written policy increases that risk exponentially.

Assuming that the t-shirt offenders are students, the school might be justified in restricting one of the shirts– depicting the alleged murderer smoking marijuana — under Morse v. Frederick (the “bong hits 4 jesus!” case) on the basis that it promotes drug use.  However, given that police banned one of the two people from campus for two years, it seems unlikely that they are students.  Even if they were students, Morse only authorizes restrictions of content which “reasonably” appear to promote drug use.  This shirt was promoting the release of an alleged murderer, not smoking pot.

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