The First Amendment ran smack into a Wal-Mart supercenter earlier this week in the city of Littleton, Colorado. What started off as citizen opposition to a proposed Wal-Mart turned into a free speech conflict. When Wal-Mart opponents showed up at a city hall hearing last week wearing “Littleton Against Wal-Mart” T shirts, they were forced to turn their shirts inside out. More than 6 police officers told numerous opponents to remove or cover their T shirts, or leave, according to the Denver Post. “We weren’t going to do anything,” said Robert Davis, a Littleton resident, who wore an anti-Wal-Mart T shirt that fated evening. “We all just thought wearing them would be a silent protest, in case we didn’t get to speak.” A city official told the newspaper that the city manager’s office imposed the rule because “police expected a large, rowdy crowd of opponents and hoped to keep them from intimidating those who might not agree with them,” the Post reported. “If they want to wear their T-shirts on the public sidewalk outside the building, off the property, they may do so,” the city official noted. “This is in no way an attempt to deny them their free speech, but to manage where they practice it for public safety.” Littleton invoked a city rule which also allows officials to restrict objects such as glass bottles at public events for safety reasons. No one has ever been restricted for wearing a T shirt at the City Center. A violation of the rule is a misdemeanor that carries a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 90 days in jail. Officials pointed out that their rule is the same as found in the U.S. Supreme Court chambers. Wal-Mart opponents say the huge superstore will have negative visual impacts on South Platte Park, and create major traffic problems. Several days later, Littleton Mayor Jim Taylor backpeddled on the city’s ordinance, and told the Post, “We’ll change the requirement, and nobody will be arrested, unless they’re being disruptive and intimidating others.”
One resident told the newspaper that without the T-shirts, officials might assume a larger number of town residents supported the proposed store. Another resident said that Littleton’s sorry performance that night “is not something the city should be proud of.” A Denver lawyer had offered to represent the citizens pro bono if they were arrested, both in municipal court and in a federal lawsuit over the violation of their constitutional rights. Citizen groups often come to hearings with T shirts, signs, lapel stickers, etc. Large signs can be disruptive at a hearing, but wearing a T shirt simply puts on your chest, what you’re feeling in your heart. The Mayor of Littleton wisely diffused the tension by changing the enforcement of the city’s rule. If the city is so concerned about “public safety,” they would do better to order an independent peer review of Wal-Mart’s traffic impact report, than review the message on homeowners’ T shirts.