Is wearing a "Let's go, Brandon" mask grounds for being kicked off a flight?

(AP Photo/David Becker, File)

Believe it or not, this wasn’t Allegiant Airline’s first unhappy run-in with the “Let’s go, Brandon” meme recently.

Just a guess, but I think this video has less to do with any specific pro-Biden policy than with airlines implementing their very own “fighting words” doctrine. More on that in a second. First, watch:

https://twitter.com/libsoftiktok/status/1493758772107304960

I can’t make out what’s written on the mask and the flight attendant never says. The closest we get to finding out why the passenger was ejected is when she mentions a “comment” written on his mask that makes it unacceptable.

It must be a really important comment if he’s willing to miss a flight over it, though. A political statement might do it.

Fox Business asked Allegiant for an explanation and got one. “The video in question depicts part of an incident involving a passenger who failed to comply with repeated crew member requests to adhere to the federal face mask policy,” the airline’s statement said. “The passenger was removed from the flight and issued a refund for his fare. Disregarding instructions from flight crew members is prohibited by federal regulations and is grounds for removal from a flight where such conduct creates an unsafe environment.”

Gotta be more to it than that, though. If the flight crew tells you to step out into the aisle and tap dance for them, refusing can’t be valid grounds for ejection.

Here’s the FAA graph that explains this, I think. Note the dashed orange line, which represents the average number of weekly incidents involving “unruly passengers” in the fourth quarter of 2020. More than a year later, the U.S. still has yet to return to that baseline:

Another graph posted by the FAA shows that 91 investigations of “unruly passengers” were initiated in all of 2017. Last year that number was … 1,099. Through six weeks of 2022, 123 investigations have already been opened.

Simply put, Americans have lost their collective mind under the stress of the pandemic. In particular, the mask mandate on airplanes has placed flight crews squarely in the middle of bitter partisan feuding over mask policy. To discourage passengers from resisting the rules, the FAA decided to get tough. Quote: “Unruly passengers can distract pilots. It is not safe to disrupt a flight. The FAA has ZERO TOLERANCE for not following crew instructions.” If the flight attendant tells you your mask is disruptive, it seems you have little recourse but to do what she says.

Is wearing a “Let’s go, Brandon” mask really “unruly behavior,” though? The guy in the clip never even raises his voice.

I don’t think it’s the mask itself that the flight attendant was worried about, I think it was the potentially “unruly” reaction some Biden fan onboard potentially might have had to it. That’s what I meant up top about the “fighting words” doctrine. The Supreme Court introduced that concept in a famous First Amendment case in which someone was charged for calling another person a “fascist” and a “g-ddamned racketeer.” He was charged and convicted under a local law that prohibited speech intended to “deride, offend or annoy” another person. The Court upheld the conviction on grounds that it amounted to “fighting words,” i.e. those which “by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” In other words, if you say something so foul that you might reasonably expect a fight to break out over it, you can be arrested for it — even though it’s the other person’s reaction, not your words, that have made the situation dangerous.

That’s one of the worst rulings in Supreme Court history, a de facto “heckler’s veto” smuggled into the First Amendment. The Court knows it too and has stayed away from it in developing its free-speech jurisprudence over the decades since. But you can see the same logic in Allegiant’s decision to boot the guy with the (alleged) LGB mask. They know passengers are on a hair trigger; they don’t want any fights breaking out; and so they’re going to remove anyone who insists on being even the least bit provocative. Unlike SCOTUS, Allegiant doesn’t need to care about the Constitution or passengers’ free-speech rights. All they want is a safe, incident-free flight. And so they’re going to err on the side of booting those who conceivably make that harder for them.

One would think, and expect, that a guy wearing a “F*** Trump” mask would get the same treatment for the same reason. The airlines don’t want any trouble, and that’s the sort of message that might cause trouble. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the “fighting words” doctrine was formulated during World War II, another era of high anxiety in which authorities were more worried about keeping order than protecting civil liberties.

Question, though: Would a “Let’s go, Brandon” t-shirt draw a different response? Logically you would think not, that a provocative message is a provocative message whether it’s on a mask or a shirt. If the airline is worried about political disagreements erupting into arguments, LGB or “F Trump” apparel should be grounds for removal as well. Watch this video from a few weeks ago, though. This guy is wearing a “Let’s go, Brandon” mask (a nifty one too) and a “Let’s go, Brandon” sweatshirt. Gotta cover up that mask because it’s offensive, he’s told. But his shirt remains in plain view. W-w-w-what?

https://twitter.com/AdamRadogna/status/1487128840178745347