10/06/2005

RGJ.com: Woman bounced from flight for T-shirt

A Washington state woman intends to press a civil-rights case against Southwest Airlines for booting her off a flight in Reno after fellow passengers complained about a message on her T-shirt.

Lorrie Heasley, of Woodland, Wash., was halfway home on a flight Tuesday that began in Los Angeles, wearing a T-shirt with the pictures of President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and a phrase similar to the popular film, "Meet the Fockers."

Heasley said she wore the T-shirt as a gag. She wanted her parents, who are Democrats, to see it when they picked her up at the airport in Portland, Ore.

"I just thought it was hilarious," said Heasley, 32, a lumber saleswoman.

And she felt she had the right to wear it.

"I have cousins in Iraq and other relatives going to war," she said. "Here we are trying to free another country and I have to get off an airplane in midflight over a T-shirt. That's not freedom."

Southwest Airlines spokeswoman Marilee McInnis said the T-shirt became an issue after several passengers complained. She said the airline's contract filed with the Federal Aviation Administration contains rules on passenger conduct.

Heasley said no one from Southwest said anything about the shirt when she waited two hours near the gate at Los Angeles International Airport. And neither the pilot, nor other crew members, said anything when she boarded the aircraft, Heasley added.

After the plane stopped in Reno at noon Tuesday, she and her husband, Ron, moved to the front of the plane. Passengers began complaining about the T-shirt as they boarded.

After several conversations with flight attendants, Heasley agreed to cover the words by cuddling up with a sweatshirt. When the sweatshirt slipped while she was trying to sleep, she was ordered to wear her T-shirt inside-out or leave. The couple chose to leave.

McInnis said the rules filed with the FAA say the airline will deny boarding to any customer whose conduct is offensive, abusive, disorderly or violent or for clothing that is "lewd, obscene, or patently offensive."

Allen Lichtenstein, lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union in Nevada, said Heasley's T-shirt is "protected" political speech under the Constitution. The real issue, he said, is that the airline allowed her to wear the shirt onboard and then objected only when people complained.

"That they changed rules in the middle of a flight simply because someone didn't like it and it might be problematic," he said.

FAA spokesman Donn Walker said no federal rules exist on the subject.

"It's up to the airlines who they want to take and by what rules," he said. "The government just doesn't get into the business of what people wear on an aircraft."

RGJ.com: Woman bounced from flight for T-shirt

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