Should a Man Wearing a T-Shirt Threatening to Kill Journalists Have Been Kicked Off a United Flight Yesterday?

A couple of weeks ago an American Airlines flight attendant wouldn’t let singer and reality star Aubrey O’Day fly without changing her shirt – and since she didn’t have another one, turning it inside out – due to the profanity spelled out on it.

She could have gone into the lavatory to change. Instead she complained that the airline made her take off her shirt in front of other passengers. Which may have just been her way of sticking it to airline rules she considered prudish.

But what would United do? While Snopes actually has an entry debunking whether the airline actually has an ‘armed seating and apparel division’ (the truth is it was eliminated as part of the “Project Quality” cuts under ex-CEO Jeff Smisek) the airline is now coming under fire for doing nothing over a passenger’s t-shirt.

On United flight UA824 from Los Angeles to Boston yesterday a passenger was wearing a t-shirt advocating hanging of journalists.

Jessica Sidman reports that her brother was on board, and he reported the shirt to a flight attendant. He said that he “didn’t want one passenger threatening to kill other passengers.”

The flight attendant spoke to the captain. Security came on board to talk to her brother, explained that they couldn’t do anything about an offensive t-shirt but offered to let him take another flight (United’s next LA-Boston flight would have been a red eye but there are countless connecting options through Denver, Houston, and Chicago).

United’s contract of carriage says they can remove passengers “who are barefoot or not properly clothed” – the latter suggesting, I think, not being properly covered rather than for the message the clothing conveys. The word “disruption” appears only in the document when discussing acceptance of service animals and emotional support animals.

The airline has committed to remove passengers via law enforcement only when safety and security is an issue.

It seems to me the only way that safety and security becomes an issue from this shirt is by way of the response it evokes from others, and United properly offered to allow a customer voicing a concern to take a different flight if he preferred.

Much of the discussion on legal twitter has been around the first amendment, whether this shirt is expression or an exception for ‘true threats’. The first amendment is at issue at the government security checkpoint. It’s not an issue on board United Airlines.

Make no mistake the shirt is deplorable. Media criticism is one thing but what kind of person takes the view that journalists should be hanged, and indeed dons a t-shirt in public to broadcast it?

It also wasn’t a specific threat, or a credible threat, against any individual and there was nothing to suggest the passenger wearing it would be a safety risk for the aircraft. I think United ought to be within its rights to enforce a dress code. Indeed, they ought to enforce the one that they have with respect to bare feet! But in the moment the response from the airline’s seems appropriate, as borne out by the fact that the flight proceeded without further interruption (and even arrived in Boston on time).

(HT: Reid F.)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. T shirts don’t threaten people, words can not hurt you, a gun is no more capable of killing a human that a pencil is of misspelling words. Regardless of what the authors menstruating sister says. Trying to reason with a fool only shows there’s two fools in the room….

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