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NSA Squabbles With T-shirt Maker Over Free Speech

  • Jim Randle

The U.S. National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security have threatened legal action to block the sale of T-shirts that ridicule these two powerful government agencies. But the T-shirt designer says NSA and DHS are the ones breaking the law by assaulting free speech, a pillar of democratic society.

A judge may decide who is right.

One T-shirt calls the NSA the “only part of the government that actually listens,” a joke that plays on the NSA’s controversial, and critics say overzealous, monitoring of communications worldwide. Americans tend to laugh out loud when they see the message.

Another shirt parodies the DHS logo, rewritten as the “Department of Homeland Stupidity.”

Agency officials have sent stern letters to the printer who makes and distributes these designs, demanding an immediate halt, according to T-shirt designer Dan McCall. He says the letters cite federal laws banning unauthorized use or defacement of official logos.

McCall says the demand violates the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of free speech.
“We are fighting for some clarity in the law, but also to reaffirm the fact that criticism, in this case parody of our government, is completely allowed and certainly isn't criminal," said McCall.

A lawyer from Public Citizen, an advocacy group, is defending the T-shirt designer. Attorney Paul Levy says the messages on the T-shirts are satire, and that's part of the robust debate over the role and conduct of government.

“I think it's clear that the designs that McCall is purveying are plainly protected political speech," said Levy.

Law Professor Tim Zick, at the College of William and Mary, says free speech is fundamental to democracy. He spoke to VOA via Skype.

“We have a First Amendment [to the Constitution] that protects freedom of speech, and it has been long interpreted to protect criticism of government. Again, at its core, is the belief that citizens are better off in a self-governing society being able to discuss matters of public import among themselves," said Zick.

The CIA is also a target of criticism.

And every president has been mocked, according to Professor Zick.

George W. Bush was called stupid.

President Obama’s critics say he's a liar.

Officials from the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency declined to be interviewed for this story or to otherwise comment.

The matter has been referred to a federal court.
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