Quite a few times in TV shows and movies and only once in real life I've seen people with offensive tattoo or shirt symbols such as the Swastika.

Is there a law in the United States that bans the display of a symbol such as this? If so, how do people with these symbols on them go out in public without getting caught?

  • you can see many swastikas around hindu temples and even indian restaurants. the symbol is very old and predates national socialism, by which it was co-opted and compromised.
    – amphibient
    Sep 25, 2015 at 21:12

3 Answers 3


Yes and no.

While there are no general laws that ban the display of offensive symbols, they are prohibited in certain circumstances. Significantly, this is in the workplace.

It is illegal to discriminate on the following bases in the workplace:

  • Race
  • Sex
  • Pregnancy
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Disability (physical or mental, including HIV status)
  • Age (for workers over 40)
  • Military service or affiliation
  • Bankruptcy or bad debts
  • Genetic information
  • Citizenship status (for citizens, permanent residents, temporary residents, refugees, and asylees)

For instance, in Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 US 742 (1998), the majority found:

a plaintiff claiming employment discrimination based upon race could assert a claim for a racially hostile work environment, in addition to the classic claim of so-called "disparate treatment."

Since you haven't been specific about the nature of the offensive symbol, some examples might be:

  • displaying a swastika
  • displaying sexually offensive material
  • displaying racially offensive material

These are likely only to apply if the employer ought to have known, or did in fact know, that an employee (or in some cases, the customers) of a business would be offended, or it would amount to discrimination.

Of course, a single display of only the symbol is not likely, on its own, to create a hostile work environment - it would need to be considered with the rest of the facts - but it can certainly be a contributing factor.

It's a bit difficult to list all the situations where similar laws might apply, but this is one of the most prominent (and, to be honest, one of the ones that I'm personally interested in).

  • 2
    So in all these cases the symbol itself is not illegal in the USA, but is just part of illegal behaviour.
    – gnasher729
    Sep 27, 2015 at 21:19
  • 1
    Correct. So even though it's not illegal in and of itself, if it's accompanied by other behaviours, or it is done in a way that it is repeated and continuous, it may be illegal when considered as a whole.
    – jimsug
    Sep 27, 2015 at 21:21
  • Similarly for hate crime laws, which can only be prosecuted when there is an underlying crime (say assault or murder) that is motivated against a person on the basis of their status as a protected class (precieved or otherwise). Again, here the words or symbols used are not in and of themselves illegal, but the use of them is evidence for a biased motivation against the victim. In all anti-discrimination law in the U.S. it is the actions of discrimintory behavior, not the use of discrimintory language, that is at issue.
    – hszmv
    Dec 15, 2020 at 12:52

The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States prohibits the government from enacting laws that abridge the freedom of speech:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

There is no right not to be offended.

In fact, it can be argued that it is only offensive and controversial speech that needs protection.

There is no law that bans the display of offensive symbols.

  • I'm not sure why I completely overlooked this. I guess I was just wondering about laws that aren't too well-known in which case this covers it.
    – Adam
    Sep 25, 2015 at 23:33
  • 3
    There's a whole stack of exceptions to the First Amendment, though.
    – jimsug
    Sep 26, 2015 at 0:42

The only way a symbol (lets say the finger) can be censored is on or in private property. A store or mall can tell you to leave because they are private property. A sporting event can tell you to leave (football game) because they already have written rules that prohibit it. No one ever asks to read them but if you ask the stadium for the rules they will give you a copy. As for racist t shirts. Be careful, you need to be big and bad to wear some of them, because you may offend the wrong person. I wear offensive t shirts all the time. none are racist so I have never had a problem. Other than one that is anti muslim. But that's not racist.

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