published Sunday, August 14th, 2011

Barrett: Knoxville lawmaker, UT store create big Disappoint Mint

Did you hear the one about the lawmaker who scolded the University of Tennessee bookstore about some breath mints because they poked fun at President Obama?

Don’t wait for a punch line; this actually happened. The bookstore, proving itself unworthy of that name, folded like a wet towel and censored its candy section by pulling the mints. And the lily-livered UT administration backed the decision.

Come, let us savor every minty-fresh moment:

* A student complains to Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, about tins of mints in the bookstore that feature a cartoon of Obama and read, “This is change? Disappoint Mints.” I’ll stipulate that as satire goes, Disappoint Mints aren’t on a par with Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Still, even bland political commentary has rights.

* But rather than lecture the student on the virtues of free speech, Armstrong goes to the bookstore — a university bookstore, which resides near the pinnacle of First Amendment protection, for crying out loud! — and says he’s offended.

* In an act that would make any jellyfish blush, bookstore officials also decline the opportunity to expound on the Bill of Rights. Instead they remove the mints to avoid giving offense.

* The director of the store acknowledges that mints satirizing George W. Bush were allowed in the past. But heaven knows we mustn’t brook criticism of Obama on a college campus. What might the kiddies think if they learned there are views of the president that contradict their professors’ glowing assessments?

Armstrong’s excuse for his behavior is that the bookstore operates with some government money and “ought to be sensitive” on “politically specific products,” the Knoxville News Sentinel reported.

“We certainly don’t want in any way to put the university in a bad light by having those political [products], particularly aimed at defaming the president,” he added.

Funny, I thought what was putting UT in a bad light was its craven surrender to a crybaby.

At any rate, if the representative is worried about government funding political speech, he must not have sat in on a college lecture in the past four decades. A quick scan of UT’s website finds a course whose focus is a “model of multicultural and gender-sensitive constructive thinking; confronting power and addressing educational implications.”

I can decipher enough of that gobbledygook to assume that the works of Phyllis Schlafly and Thomas Sowell won’t figure prominently in the syllabus.

Another class entails “Theoretical research currently presented by feminist scholars questioning traditional (male) theories; application of these feminist theories to current feminist work in education.”

Methinks you’ll find the “questioning” a tad severe if you’re so unlucky as to get stuck in that course.

And don’t miss a class under UT’s “Africana Studies” that “[e]xamines racial/ethnic disparities in criminal offending and victimization, as well as different experiences with law enforcement, judicial and correctional agencies. Emphasis on social justice.”

How about an emphasis on education?

In short, students in the state’s flagship university are assaulted daily with political activism underwritten by taxpayers. In many cases, students have to endure sheer classroom nuttiness to earn a degree, then spend years in the real world painfully unlearning the warped perceptions imparted by such courses.

None of that apparently troubles Armstrong. He didn’t take his bold stand for taxpayers until there was the threat of students being allowed to make a free-will choice to buy candy that tepidly lampoons a horrendous president — who, by pure coincidence, shares Armstrong’s party affiliation.

Where is the rest of liberaldom in all this? Mostly silent, so far as I can tell. If something vaguely leftish had been protested — much less censored — the ACLU would have shown up at the bookstore and at Armstrong’s legislative office with kerosene and matches. Instead, it was left to a libertarian professor of constitutional law at UT, Glenn Reynolds, to make the case.

“There is no candy exception to the First Amendment,” Reynolds told the Knoxville paper. “Free speech is free speech.”

A final irony in a situation already ripe with contradictions: The Chicago Tribune reports that Disappoint Mints are made by a liberal company that intended them as a commentary on Obama’s not being liberal enough. Seriously. No word on whether Armstrong realized that before deputizing himself as the candy police.

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