Many T-Shirt printers, sign makers and screen printers will at one point or another, find themselves in an unpleasant situation: do they print something they find offensive, or do they turn away a customer? It’s an unfortunate reality of the business, where personal morals and ethics will inevitably clash with those of the public.
In today’s world of instant feedback and social media, denying service to a customer can be very problematic for a business owner. This, obviously, makes it hard for many business owners to know what to do.
On the one hand they don’t want to compromise on their morals. On the other hand, they know there’s a lot of negative publicity and potential legal issues to be had when turning down business.
We’ll discuss what you can do, as an owner of a printing business when faced with 'offensive messages'. Most countries give business owners discretion over denial of service. So long as you don’t break any laws in the process, you’re generally allowed to refuse service to any person for any reason. The most common example is when customers are being rude to staff: it’s perfectly acceptable to deny that person service.
You’ll also be allowed to deny service on moral or ethical grounds, so long as doing so won’t be seen as discrimination against the customer. Anti-discrimination laws are very location-sensitive, and you should always be educated on what is and isn’t defined as discrimination. If you are not, it would not be a bad idea to consult an attorney who is skilled in such matters.
More over, there are times when the message you’ve been asked to print may well be illegal to wear in public. Many countries — particularly Western nations — have laws against overly offensive or hateful speech in public places. Any message which might reasonably be construed to upset the peace can land people fines, or even jail time. Denying to produce a shirt which could get the wearer arrested is absolutely within your rights as you do not want to be a 'participant' in the production of unlawful goods.
Perhaps the most famous example of this would be the band Cradle of Filth’s infamous “Jesus Is A C***” shirt. Many people have been arrested for wearing the shirt in public throughout the UK over the last few years. Australia and New Zealand went so far as to ban the shirt outright within the last decade or so. As an interesting aside, Cradle of Filth’s lead singer has himself gone on record saying the shirt shouldn’t be worn in public. He’s gone so far as to criticise those who’ve been caught doing so for exercising incredibly poor judgment.
Lastly, from a legal perspective, understand that freedom of speech only protects people from government censorship. Freedom of speech does not guarantee a person a platform to say what they want. You, as a private business owner, are entirely allowed to deny a person to use your services to communicate a message you disagree with.
So generally speaking, the law is on your side...
Now, the question of: should you print messages you don’t agree with? Really it should come down to what the message is and why you don’t agree.
Let’s picture it like this: After the Olympics, someone comes to you and wants to celebrate their country’s national team beating your country’s national team at a particular event.
Say you’re upset your country lost that event. Should you deny that customer service? Probably not. You might not like that they won, but such is sports.
But now say they want to commemorate their team’s victory by showing their mascot desecrating your country’s flag. That’s a very different thing entirely. National pride in a sports accomplishment is understandable, but insulting a country’s symbol and people is unnecessary and offensive.
This obviously sounds extreme, but it outlines the difference really neatly. Denying to print a message because you don’t like something is very different to denying to print something that you find genuinely offensive or contrary to your beliefs.
The first is sketchy, and reeks of unprofessionalism. The second, however, is absolutely your right as a business owner.
People shouldn’t be expected to compromise their beliefs and morals for the sake of a business. If you’re asked to print a message that you strongly disagree with, it is entirely within your rights to refuse. Be polite, but firm. Explain your stance, as thoroughly or broadly as you wish. No matter how repulsive you might find the message you’ve been asked to print, treat the person on the other end with basic professional courtesy. If they try to make a stink over the issue on social media, you can at least show that you’ve been nothing but professional the whole way.
No-one can force you to do work you don’t agree with. Conduct yourself professionally and stick to your guns, and you should be fine.
- Joseph Guilar reporting for American Screen Printing Association.
Editor's note: This article is not intended to be legal advice and is solely the opinion of the author. It merely conveys general information related to issues encountered in screen printing, graphics arts, and the like. Accessing, reading, or relying on the information contained expressly does not create a relationship with ASPA. The information is not guaranteed to be correct, complete, or current. You should not act or rely on this information without seeking the advice of competent legal counsel.
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