A pair of New Yorkers hoping to pay a visit to the Statue of Liberty last month say they were ordered by federal employees to change out of their "Abolish ICE" t-shirts before approaching the monument. When the couple refused, security guards escorted them out of line for their pre-paid tour—a decision that the National Park Service now admits was a "misstep," and one that qualifies as illegal viewpoint discrimination, according to the NYCLU. (Update below).
Tiffany Huang tells Gothamist that she'd never been to the statue before, and received tickets from her fiancé as a birthday gift back in June. In light of President Trump's family separation policy, the couple "felt we needed to acknowledge the symbolism of visiting the Statue of Liberty," says Huang. They decided to do so by wearing homemade shirts emblazoned with the "Abolish ICE" slogan.
"We did not have any plans for any other sort of action—just exercising our right to free speech," Huang added.
But when they arrived at South Ferry on July 14th to embark on the Statue Cruises tour, they were stopped by an official at the ferry's security checkpoint. "A second security person came over to tell us he couldn't let us on the tour with our shirts," recalled Huang. "He said it was our 'choice' to either change or put on clothes over our t-shirts, or leave. So we said we would rather leave, and another security person walked us back out through security."
According to Huang, the two security guards cited "what happened on July 4th" as a justification for the ejection—presumably referring to Therese Patricia Okoumou, who was arrested after she scaled the Statue of Liberty and refused to leave until "all the children have been released." Earlier in the day, Okoumou had participated in a demonstration in which a dozen protesters unfurled an "Abolish ICE" banner on the statue's observation deck.
Afterwards, the couple contacted the NYCLU about the incident, and the civil liberties organization reached out to the National Park Service. The agency acknowledged that blocking access to the Statue of Liberty over a political t-shirt is a form of viewpoint discrimination, according to the NYCLU. Tour operators also refunded the couples tickets. "This is first instance I've ever heard of anything like this happening," said Rafael Abreu, a spokesperson for Statue Cruises, the authorized concessionaire of the National Park Service.
Reached for comment, a spokesperson for the National Park Service, Jerry Willis, told Gothamist that "this never should've happened," adding that "it's pretty clear from our standpoint that we don't restrict free speech." Asked whether the employees who booted the couple from the line would face any discipline, the spokesperson said that they weren't able to identify who exactly was responsible for the decision.
"It was certainly a misstep on our part and we're happy that the couple has elected to take up our invitation to come back," Willis added.
The couple is scheduled to visit the Statue of Liberty on Friday. According to Huang, they're planning to wear their Abolish ICE shirts once again.
Update: Weeks after they were turned away, Tiffany Huang and Sam Lewin attempted to see the State of Liberty once again. This time, they had "no issue" wearing their Abolish ICE shirts.
A few weeks ago, Tiffany Huang and Sam Lewin were denied access to the Statue of Liberty because they were wearing shirts that said "Abolish ICE.” Today, we got to tag along on their return trip where they wore the same “Abolish ICE” shirts with no issue. Full story below. pic.twitter.com/itLajTq93Z
— NYCLU (@NYCLU) August 22, 2018