UPDATE: Less than 24 hours after Walmart removed the shirt from its website, Teespring.com, the third-party seller that had been offering the shirt on Walmart.com removed it from its site as well. Merchandise with this slogan has also been pulled from Amazon.com and eBay.
The nation’s largest retailer Wednesday removed from its website a controversial t-shirt that threatens journalists, shortly after RTDNA and its Voice of the First Amendment Task Force sent a letter to the company’s top executives requesting its removal.
The shirt, featuring the words “Rope. Tree. Journalist. SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED,” had been offered for sale on Walmart.com by a third-party seller, Teespring.com, which also offers on its site a coffee mug featuring the slogan.
RTDNA Executive Director Dan Shelley sent a letter pointing out that the message sent by the shirts could “at the least … inflame the passions of those who either don’t like, or don’t understand, the news media. At worst, they openly encourage violence targeting journalists.”
Less than five hours later, Shelley received an email from an entity called the Walmart Executive Escalations department stating, in part, “We have forwarded this to the appropriate team to remove it. Walmart.com does appreciate feedback like this so that offensive material does not appear on our website.” RTDNA has confirmed that the shirt has indeed been removed from Walmart.com.
“We are grateful for Walmart's swift action, but dismayed that it, and anyone else selling the shirt, would offer such an offensive and inflammatory product,” Shelley said. “We live in an environment in which political and ideological discourse has deteriorated to the level where some find it appropriate to advocate violence targeting journalists merely for performing their Constitutionally-guaranteed duty to seek and report the truth," he added.
The “Rope. Tree. Journalist. SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED” slogan has been in existence for many years. The shirt gained notoriety during the 2016 election cycle when some people began wearing it at campaign rallies and in other public places. A Reuters journalist tweeted a photo of a man wearing the shirt just prior to the 2016 election.
Shortly after the tweet went viral, one of Teespring.com’s competitors pulled the shirt from its e-commerce site.
According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, of which RTDNA is a founding partner, at least 34 journalists have been physically assaulted in the U.S. so far during 2017. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 48 journalists have been killed in other countries thus far this year.
“We recognize that under the First Amendment, companies have a right to sell, and consumers have a right to purchase, these shirts. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do, especially in today’s vitriolic climate,” Shelley said.
RTDNA formed the nonpartisan Voice of the First Amendment Task Force early this year to defend against threats to the First Amendment and news media access, and to help the public better understand why responsible journalism is essential to their daily lives. Reach out to the task force by emailing email@example.com.
Since this story first broke, RTDNA’s response to the threatening t-shirt has sparked First Amendment debates.