The Bumper Sticker Wars

Walla Walla, WA. A high school student is suspended for a bumper sticker on her car. Its contents: “I fucked your boyfriend”

Camp Lejeune, NC. Civilian employee and Marine Corps veteran, Jesse Nieto, is ordered to remove stickers from his vehicle of a slightly more political charged nature:

(AP) The messages displayed at least a half-dozen anti-Muslim decals including “ISLAM TERRORISM,” and a red line superimposed on the Islamic star and crescent with the words “WE DIED, THEY REJOICED.”

As long as the stickers remain, Nieto’s vehicle is banned from Camp Lejeune, as well as Arlington Cemetery, where his son is buried. He is filing suit to challenge the ban.


In both these cases there are questions concerning the policy being enforced. Walla Walla High School has charged that the “I fucked your boyfriend” bumper sticker is “vulgar and inappropriate.” Yet the school board’s policy clearly prohibits “vulgar” language only in classroom and assembly settings where it might disrupt the educational mission of the school. Camp Lejeune’s policy is bit more far reaching, if not explicit, barring employees from displaying messages on their vehicles that are “extremist, indecent, sexists, or racist….” But while conflating terrorism with Islam can be considered hate speech, in the very same parking lot, stickers bearing the confederate flag, which many consider racist, have gone uncontested, leaving questions as to how this policy is interpreted/enforced.

In Walla Walla, the school’s policy could not have reasonably been interpreted to apply to the bumper sticker in question. It is also of note that the contents of the sticker, while it may offend certain sensibilities, is not likely to foster hateful feelings towards others. At Camp Lejeune, it is bit more complicated. The lawsuit filed by the Thomas More Law Center on Nieto’s behalf cites that he began displaying the stickers shortly after his son was killed in the attack on the U.S.S. Cole off the coast in Yemen in 2000.  Does Nieto have the right to this sort of response, even if it is hateful to Muslims? As a private citizen, he may. As a government employee it is less clear.

Regardless, the Camp Lejeune case raises certain questions beyond that of individual expression- namely, how to respond to hate speech? There is a growing problem of Islamophobia and racism towards Muslims, with the FBI reporting an overall increase in crimes of anti-Islamic nature. This is something we as a society would do well to examine. However, if the military’s concern is addressing the racist overtones of the sticker, and fostering respect and sensitivity to the feelings of religious or ethnic groups, then one must ask whether a simple ban on bumper stickers is really a substantive way of dealing with the issue?

Some words and images may hurt—no matter how they are used—because they are deeply rooted in the scars and unhealed wounds of history and social discord. Banning them, unfortunately, is not likely to erase the pain of historical reality.

(from NCAC’s statement on Hate Speech)

About Blog of the National Coalition Against Censorship

Blogging Censorship is where National Coalition Against Censorship staff weigh in on the censorship issues on their minds.
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