Like all of you (hopefully), I love my right to free speech. The First Amendment allows me to say things like “Politician X is a big fat doodiehead” without worrying about getting shot, provided that Politician X is not Dick Cheney. But some people — and I know people will raise a lot of pitchforks about this statement — take the First Amendment too far. No, I’m not advocating censorship; I’m talking about people who think free speech applies universally to themselves, even when it disproportionately obstructs the speech of others.

What brings me to say this is the recent ban on political gear at the polls. About a week before the election, a district judge upheld the ban against partisan paraphernalia within 100 yards of polling sites — including political T-shirts — and there were those who claimed this was a dastardly plot to keep expected legions of kids wearing pro-bama gear from voting. Fortunately, some groups like the Michigan Student Assembly’s Voice Your Vote commission stepped in to hand out plain white T-shirts to anyone wearing political clothing near the polls. So, problem solved, right?

For the most part. However, there emerged a small but vocal group who maintained that this legislation violated — you guessed it — our free speech rights. According to them, people have the right to show support for whomever they want wherever they want, 24 hours a day. Anything less than that is a First Amendment restriction and, therefore, a travesty on par with fascism, Republicanism and terrorism.

If you get right down to it, yes, this is technically a First Amendment restriction. Of course, opponents of this ban are acting like free speech has never been restricted in the history of the United States. The truth is that free speech is often compromised in order to protect the rights and well-being of others. In the classic example, it’s not your right to scream “fire” in a crowded theater and cause a dangerous stampede. As it stands, the ban against political T-shirts at polling sites is an extremely minor sacrifice that helps ensure other people get an unhindered chance to voice their opinion.

I have a little secret for you: People are ridiculously easily influenced by their peers. There have been a lot of studies done regarding the bandwagon effect in the political arena, and findings consistently show that people often vote for a candidate as a result of peer pressure, whether or not they agree with his or her politics.

Let’s look at my friend Joe the Lumberjack. He lives in Washington as a proud member of a thriving lumberjack community. However, despite the pro-lumberjack propaganda he faces every day, he finds himself secretly wishing to support the tree-loving Ralph Nader. He gets up his courage to go to the polls, but what does he see? Everyone wearing John McCain T-shirts! Suddenly, he realizes Nader doesn’t have a prayer and he must be making the wrong choice. His mind is swayed, even though his stances on the issues aren’t.

Joe is just one example, but if you allow millions of people to be walking billboards for their candidates of choice at polling locations, it can certainly turn the tide in an election. Joe’s buddies may not enter the voting booth with him, but it’s a fact that the bandwagon effect has been shown to be very effective in political context.
You’re free to support your candidate for the months leading up to the election and however many months after. And that’s beautiful. But I believe in courtesy. It is courteous to stop shoving your political views down others’ throats for the 10 minutes it takes them to perform one of the most important duties of an American citizen. I promise, you can put your T-shirt on right after. Therefore, although it is ultimately Joe’s choice, he has the right to spend 10 minutes in the polls undisturbed by political advertisement.

Because even if you only intended to support your candidate, political T-shirts in this context are very much a form of advertisement — which happens to be one of the things not universally protected by the First Amendment. In fact, there’s a lot not protected by the First Amendment. You can’t publish libel. You can’t violate copyrights. And you can’t film pornographic movies with minors in them. See a pattern? These could all potentially harm people.

You’re not “harming” Joe by putting a gun to his head, but you’re creating an emotional hindrance to his free expression. You can afford to make a minor sacrifice. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if this legislation weren’t in place, but as it stands, it’s a good thing.

Eileen Stahl can be reached at efstahl@umich.edu.

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