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Our Opinion: Political clothing offers no excuse to mistreat guests

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Rachel Williams says a T-shirt got her thrown out of a Wilson doctor’s office. In the Charlotte suburb of Gastonia, Lydia Sturgues-Robinson said an ice cream parlor booted her over a button. 

Sturgues-Robinson was wearing a Black Lives Matter button when someone asked her to leave Tony’s Ice Cream on July 20. Police arrived and arrested her on a trespassing charge, though she told media outlets she’d left the business and was standing on a public sidewalk when she was handcuffed. 

Williams’ shirt bore the message “I can’t breathe” — the haunting words George Floyd uttered as a Minneapolis police officer held his neck in a knee chokehold for 8 minutes, 46 seconds. Floyd died moments later and the now-former cop faces a second-degree murder charge. A witness’ video of the killing sparked a national protest movement. 

In a Facebook Live video recorded outside Wilson Medical Associates, Williams said she was accompanying her grandmother to a doctor appointment when one of the physicians asked to speak with her outside the office, then told her to leave because he considered her shirt offensive. After Williams’ video went viral, protesters began picketing outside the Glendale Drive building.

The doctor won’t answer our questions about the alleged July 15 confrontation. We’ve chosen not to name him because he hasn’t addressed the matter publicly, isn’t accused of a crime and isn’t the subject of a regulatory complaint. If Williams’ account is accurate, however, his bedside manner leaves much to be desired. 

Two similar incidents don’t make a trend, but the treatment of Rachel Williams and Lydia Sturgues-Robinson seems to fit a larger pattern of businesses clashing with customers over politics. Since former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was tossed from a Virginia restaurant in June 2018, bad manners are increasingly masquerading as virtue. 

New York City bar patrons were shown the door over their tomato-red “Make America Great Again” baseball caps, and other visible signs of support for President Donald Trump have transformed paying customers into personas non-grata at various establishments. 

If the left started this incivility, the right has proven itself equally capable of mistreating strangers over supposed wrongthink. It’s a race to the bottom that produces no winners. Only pettiness prevails. 

Refusing to serve a customer because of race, ethnicity, religion or disability* is illegal, but political views aren’t protected under U.S. nondiscrimination law. There’s also no First Amendment right to express yourself on private property — the Constitution constrains government, not businesses. 

Forbidding all Republicans, all Democrats or all supporters of a specific cause falls into a conduct category we’d call “lawful but awful.” It’s bad for business, it deepens political polarization and it creates conflict. These fruitless feuds sow suspicion and mistrust between people rather than goodwill and understanding. 

A restaurant, an ice cream shop and a doctor’s office can set their own rules, provided they don’t violate local, state or federal law. Such regulations should be objective rather than subjective and ought to be posted prominently — no secret rules and no making them up on the fly. 

If the words “I can’t breathe” cause a physician such great offense that he’ll pause the practice of medicine to play amateur nightclub bouncer, perhaps he should’ve taped a sign to the wall. It’s unreasonable to assume visitors can guess which political messages might make a host withhold hospitality. 

For most shops and offices, any customer dress code more elaborate than “No shirt, no shoes, no service” merits skepticism. Busybodies who hassle clients over their clothing choices will lose sales to easygoing competitors. Why pick fights with people who want to be satisfied customers? Life’s too short, and the economic recovery’s too fragile. 

In a presidential election year, we’ll all be exposed to opinions we disagree with during the course of daily life. These are opportunities for dialogue — perhaps partisans have more in common than they imagine and could understand, if not adopt, each other’s perspectives. 

While the First Amendment doesn’t apply in the private sector, Justice Louis Brandeis’ words ring just as true in a doctor’s office as in a courtroom: “...the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” 

Businesses have little to gain and much to lose by rejecting customers over political clothing. Owners and managers who order guests off their property without just cause may find, after a few rounds of protests and boycotts, that they have the whole place to themselves.

* = CORRECTION, 1:26 p.m. Aug. 4This editorial reported that refusing to serve a customer because of gender or sexual orientation is illegal. North Carolina doesn't have nondiscrimination laws that specify sex, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity. Federal laws prohibit discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin and disability. The list of characteristics for which discrimination is unlawful has been edited. The Times regrets the error. 

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