published Sunday, October 21st, 2012

Gerber: Free speech isn’t always pretty speech

Last week, one of Clay Bennett’s cartoons offended some folks.

Yeah, I know, that is not exactly breaking news.

Cartoons by Bennett, the Times Free Press editorial cartoonist, often offend people. They ought to. They’re not supposed to be all rainbows and puppies. Editorial cartoons are supposed to be provocative, push boundaries, speak truth to power, rabble-rouse. The best cartoons address uncomfortable truths. And, yes, they sometimes are offensive, even vulgar.

The cartoon in question depicted U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a Republican from Jasper, Tenn., with a gun in his mouth under the header “The character assassination.”

You’d have to be living in a cave in outer Mongolia to not have heard last week that DesJarlais, who describes himself as pro-life, was caught on a phone-call transcript pressing a woman he’d had an affair with to have an abortion. He later said there was no pregnancy and no abortion but did not deny asking her to have an abortion, although he insists he was just trying to get the woman to admit that she wasn’t pregnant.

And back during the 2010 campaign, a bitter and hard-fought race in which DesJarlais defeated incumbent Democrat Lincoln Davis, allegations arose that, during DesJarlais’ divorce, he intimidated his ex-wife with a gun and at one time put a gun in his own mouth for three hours.

Bennett’s cartoon was prompted by DesJarlais’ statement, in an email to supporters, that the abortion allegations were a desperate attempt at character assassination. The cartoon tried to show that the congressman was the one assassinating his own character. And it played off the fact that he once apparently had held a gun in his mouth.

A member of DesJarlais’ staff objected to the fact that the newspaper published the cartoon and asked me to explain myself.

I asked him if he’d read the First Amendment.

If he had, he’d know that the amendment’s 45 words don’t require Americans to be polite. It’s much more powerful than that.

Its provision for a free press protects the newspaper’s right to publish the cartoon. And the amendment’s guarantee of free speech allows Bennett to express his opinion, even if it is offensive to some.

That said, the amendment does not protect the newspaper from the social backlash after the cartoon was printed. That’s fair. If we dish it out, we have to be able to take it.

The DesJarlais staffer said it’s not appropriate to publish a cartoon depicting a sitting member of Congress with a gun in his mouth. He said he’d called the U.S. Capitol police about the cartoon.

Tossing the term “Capitol police” around in a conversation and insisting that officers will be calling me about the cartoon shows a disregard for the First Amendment. It also is a clear attempt at intimidation.

What an irony. Someone who works for the federal government asking federal law enforcement to do something about an image that is protected under the First Amendment.

“The campaign or others may view the cartoon as everything from inappropriate to tasteless, but that’s no criteria that would sustain any type of legal action,” said Gene Policinski, senior vice president and executive director of the Nashville-based First Amendment Center. “Cartoons at times are rude, biting, satirical and crude. They’re often very tart and very sharp because of the nature of the medium, it doesn’t work with subtlety.”

Cartoonists are fair game for criticism when they step out of the boundaries of good taste, Policinski said, but the First Amendment protects their right to be tasteless.

“And it prevents government or government officials from stifling comments or cartoons that they do not like or even comments they find tasteless,” he said.

The late Doug Marlette, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist, called cartoons the “acid test” of the First Amendment.

“And for as long as cartoons exist, Americans can be assured that we still have the right and privilege to express controversial opinions and offend powerful interests,” he wrote in a 2004 essay.

In a common move from angry politicians, the DesJarlais congressional staffer said he intends to cut off reporters Andy Sher and Chris Carroll, who are covering the campaign for the 4th Congressional District, where DesJarlais is in a suddenly tight race with Democrat Eric Stewart.

The congressman can retaliate against the newspaper by cutting off information to our reporters, but Sher and Carroll — two bulldog-ish reporters not easily intimidated — will still cover the race. If DesJarlais and his people won’t talk to the newspaper, we’ll still talk to his opponent, his supporters, his detractors and voters in his district.

Gasket-blowing over political cartoons is hardly a new thing. They’ve been steaming things up since, well, before the United States was even a country. They’ve also been shaping public opinion and influencing history.

An engraving by Paul Revere that depicted British troops firing on unarmed Colonials during the Boston Massacre of 1770 wasn’t exactly how the event happened. Still, it was widely circulated in the Colonies and is credited with stirring up anti-British sentiment.

Policinski said political cartoons from the past were often vicious by today’s standards. He pointed to a 1871 cartoon by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly magazine that showed Catholic bishops as crocodiles crawling up on a riverbank to attack American families.

Was that offensive to many people? Sure.

So I will not try to convince you that Bennett’s cartoon was in good taste. That’s for you to decide. Even in the Times Free Press newsroom, journalists were divided about whether Bennett’s cartoon crossed a line. But that’s irrelevant.

Comedian Stephen Colbert ridiculed DesJarlais Thursday night on his “Colbert Report,” calling the congressman a “Republican Rottweiler” who “proved his flexibility by lifting his leg and peeing on his own position.”

Colbert joked that DesJarlais is “still adamantly against abortion except when it endangers the political life of the father.”

Offensive? I’m sure DesJarlais and his supporters think so.

Covered by the First Amendment? You betcha.

Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at Go to to see Clay Bennett’s cartoon.

Comments do not represent the opinions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, nor does it review every comment. Profanities, slurs and libelous remarks are prohibited. For more information you can view our Terms & Conditions and/or Ethics policy.
aae1049 said...

"Covered by the First Amendment? You betcha." Like this, you are sounding nice and conservative. The way it should be.

Keep that constitution handy. Strong conservative and constitutional principles will indeed serve as cover for the liberal cartoonist. Gosh, having to defend liberals......

October 21, 2012 at 1:02 a.m.
h_beecher_stowe said...

Intereseting..."Editorial cartoons are supposed to be provocative, push boundaries, speak truth to power, rabble-rouse. The best cartoons address uncomfortable truths."

What about when other cartoons are not true? Or only tell half-truths(another word for misleading)? When does the CTFP decide to start taking responsibility for "speaking truth" to its own power? These cartoons are not seen as "one's opinions" but the viewpoint of your paper, the most powerful source of information in our community. Misleading cartoons hurt and divide our community. The problem is not Washington, it is us.

October 21, 2012 at 7:10 a.m.
lkeithlu said...

What about when other cartoons are not true? Or only tell half-truths(another word for misleading)? When does the CTFP decide to start taking responsibility for "speaking truth" to its own power?

Truth is often in the eye of the beholder. If you give a group or individual the power to decide "truth" in the realm of journalism, you have crossed the line into propaganda and censorship. The print version of the paper prints conservative cartoons that I find insulting, but I would not deny the paper the freedom to print them. Nor should anyone else.

It is important that we all "get the facts" regardless of cartoons, editorials or articles we read in a newspaper.

October 21, 2012 at 8:09 a.m.
ldurham said...

First Amendment rah-rah is great, but it's hard to defend a lack of class. It's hard to defend a cartoonist who took a shot at Judge Bob Moon on the day of his funeral. It's hard to defend a cartoonist who draws a suicide attempt on a man who has reportedly done just that. Yeah, go on about your freedom of speech. It's just too bad your paper has no class or taste.

October 21, 2012 at 9:58 a.m.
Rickaroo said...

Am I missing something here?? You people whose moral sensibilities are so "offended" by a cartoon, which, by the way, was not the least bit untrue or inaccurate in its portrayal of DesJarlais, are jumping to the defense of this man who is a complete hypocrite and moral degenerate? You want to tar and feather Bennett for speaking the truth (the nerve!) and you're calling DesJarlais the "victim"? That is very telling of your own moral character.

I notice that "Alpha Dog," as Stephen Colbert referred to DesJarlais, is forging ahead with his campaign and it looks as if most Republicans are standing by their man. It's also very telling that DesJarlais' staffer threatened to call the Capitol police about the cartoon. The simpleton obviously doesn't know a thing about what the First Amendment really means nor how silly he would sound in making such a hollow, childish threat.

We can make lists of hundreds of names of both Dems and Repubs, going back to the 1900s, who have been involved in sex scandals. Some have gotten away with more than they should have and some have maybe been punished too severely. But the Republican party has become the party of "family values" and it likes to thump its own chest for being so. It's obvious, however, that they don't think they should be held accountable for their own deviant conduct. They think that abortion is murder if every other woman considers it, but when it's convenient for them, it's a viable option; and family values are meant to apply to how they expect others to live their lives but it matters not to them how they live their own.

It's one thing to slip up, exercise poor judgment, and give in to temptation or whatever. But it's entirely something else when you claim to live by a higher standard and are expected to vote in favor of legislation that affects everyone else adversely, yet you yourself do not live by that same code of conduct. You "family values" Republicans who are jumping to the defense of this reprobate are as hollow and empty inside as the man himself. You're a mangy pack of hypocrites.

October 21, 2012 at 11:19 a.m.
Elliott904 said...

Should have put a coat hanger through his head. : )

October 21, 2012 at 11:27 a.m.

Where was all the talk of the 1st Amendment when the White House asked Google to remove the anti-Muslim video that supposedly led to the anti-American riots? As far as the DesJarlais situation, the conversation that resulted in all the controversy happened over ten years ago, long before he was a Congressman. He was separated when he had the relationship and he and his ex had agreed to see other people so I am not sure the term adultery applies. Even if he discussed the possibility of an abortion, couldn't he have been pro-choice at the time? I do not agree with his stand on abortion now and I wish he were pro-choice, but don't lots of people grow and change their opinions over time? Is that beyond the realm of possibility? If this (illegally taped)conversation took place after he was elected on a pro-choice platform, then he would definitely be a hypocrite. Regardless, any cartoon depicting someone with a gun in his/her mouth is in poor taste and not funny.

October 21, 2012 at 4:07 p.m.
aae1049 said...

JohnRoss, has a great point. The truth of the matter is, most Americans do not understand the religion Islam.

October 21, 2012 at 6:07 p.m.
lkeithlu said...

Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander. Free speech is free speech. ACLU protects Christians, atheists and Nazis. You have to live with speech you detest to keep freedom intact.

October 21, 2012 at 6:16 p.m.
ldurham said...

Bottom line, the TFP is desperate to draw attention to itself, for obvious reasons. Kind of like Newsweek has done for the past couple of years. How'd that work out, by the way?

October 21, 2012 at 7:04 p.m.
Facts said...

The bottom line is anyone with these type of issues in their past should really think twice before running to serve as the face of a group of people. It's also stunning that the said group of people who tout values would defend one who has not denied his behavior of putting a gun in his mouth & calling a pregnancy bluff with the demands of abortion. I am delighted to see the left now opposing abortion.

October 21, 2012 at 8:57 p.m.
fairmon said...

This article describes the issue and the right to publish the cartoon accurately. The constitution does protect freedom of the press but does not require the press to be sensitive, accurate, bipartisan or any of those politically correct labels created over time. People still have to decide what to read, What networks to watch, what to believe etc. etc. An individual can publish their own opinion regrading issues. Freedom is a wonderful thing to have and to protect.

October 22, 2012 at 2:11 a.m.
timbo said...

First, as far as printing the cartoon and the capital police...what if that was a picture of Obama? Appropriate? Would it have been printed? Do you think that the secret service might come to see you? What if it was a picture of Debbie Wasserman-Schulz? For that matter, we didn't see a cartoon of the Mr. Wiener either. Maybe you could have drawn a penis with a trigger to his head. Now that would have been funny.

That brings me to two main points. No one is arguing that you have the right to print whatever you want. No one is arguing that you have the right to hire whomever you want. The problem here is whether or not what you print is fair and whether you use equal judgement in what you print and who you hire.

As far as I know, your name is the Times Free Press. You are a combination of the old liberal Times and the conservative Free Press. You attempt to be "even handed" by printing on editorial page liberal and one conservative. The conservative side has improved immensely by the hire of Drew Johnson and the retirement of the fake conservative Anderson. Your editorial cartoon, the first thing that catches your eye, is still liberal only. Every now and again you print a lame conservative cartoon but nothing with the sarcasm and aggressiveness of Bennett.

The other problem is that Bennett's free speech megaphone is huge and mine is 200 words once per month. Since the majority of your readers in this county are Republican or conservative it is stupid marketing not to have a conservative cartoonist with equal sarcasm and humor on the other side. Nobody ever said that journalists were smart.

Liberals rail against PAC's taking money and having undue influence on an election. The real reason this upsets them is that the PAC money negates their biased reporting and dilutes the influence of the 81% of journalists that are liberal.

I can go out in a field and yell my opinion but that cannot be compared to the affect your "free speech" has on the public discussion.

October 22, 2012 at 9:51 a.m.
lkeithlu said...

For that matter, we didn't see a cartoon of the Mr. Wiener either. Maybe you could have drawn a penis with a trigger to his head. Now that would have been funny.

I certainly agree that this would have been a classic.

October 22, 2012 at 9:03 p.m.
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