The Bomb on This Plane Was a Word

Save the vulgarity for the floor of the U.S. Senate; The F-bomb doesn’t fly when it comes to the friendly skies.

In a case that has grabbed headlines and hit the blogosphere, Southwest Airlines this week booted a Washington woman off a flight in Reno after she refused to cover up a T-shirt some considered to be in poor taste.

The cotton T in question played off the comedy film “Meet the Fockers,” and featured black-and-white pictures of President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice alongside the movie’s title — with a strategically misplaced vowel.

Partisans quickly painted the incident as a) an example of knee-jerk Bush-bashing or b) symptomatic of right-wing intolerance of free speech.

But others wondered if the incident wasn’t just a case of society becoming more willing to push the envelope when it comes to in-your-face political invective. Not to mention, to embrace crassness.

After all, instances of four-letter words uttered in public aren’t so rare these days. An authority figure no lower than Cheney used the F-word last year while speaking to Patrick Leahy, a Democrat who represents Vermont in the U.S. Senate, a body renowned for its collegiality.

“We need to be honest with ourselves,” said Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition. “That word is on the graffiti you saw driving to the airport and the cable TV you watched before you left for the airport.

“Sure, they bleep it out. But kids know exactly what that word is.”

And not all are offended by it.

That could be because “the rules are not clear enough that we all know them,” said Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento.

“Society sends mixed messages about what’s tolerable and what’s not.”

But some in society are pushing back.

The increasingly casual use of explicit terms on television has sparked crackdowns by the Federal Communications Commission.

And in the Southwest case, it was fellow passengers who objected to the T-shirt.

Beth Harbin, a spokeswoman for the airline, said it was not a case of stifling criticism of the president.

“It could’ve been a (T-shirt) of Michael Jackson _ it doesn’t matter,” she said. It simply was, she said, that the language is not “appropriate for Southwest Airlines.”

Lorrie Heasley, a 32-year-old lumber saleswoman from Woodland, Wash., boarded the plane Tuesday at Los Angeles International Airport to return home from Disneyland. She said she bought the shirt in Venice Beach and wore it for her Democratic parents, who were scheduled to pick her up at the Portland airport.

Heasley said flight attendants asked her to cover up the shirt after several women in the back of the plane objected.

“They were crowing about how I was disrespecting the president,” Heasley said in an interview with The Bee. “I said they didn’t have to read it.”

When the plane made a stop in Reno, Southwest officials asked Heasley to turn the shirt inside out or leave. Heasley, saying she has the right to dress as she pleases, left.

Now she’s mulling her options and has said that she would consider filing a lawsuit.

It’s unclear what recourse she might have. While an airline can prohibit passengers from wearing certain types of clothing, only government incursions on free expression are considered a violation of the First Amendment, said Scheer, of the First Amendment coalition.

Southwest calls it a “contract of carriage,” and Page 10 of the document reads: “Carrier may refuse to transport” passengers whose “clothing is lewd, obscene or patently offensive.”

Still, forcing a woman from a plane over a novelty T-shirt doesn’t bode well for the free flow of ideas, Scheer said.

“We live in a society where we have to tolerate a fair amount of eccentricity, and this may be an example of not enough tolerance,” Scheer said.