Gerber: Free speech isn't always pretty speech

Gerber: Free speech isn't always pretty speech

October 21st, 2012 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

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 agerber@timesfreepress.com. Go to timesfreepress.com/claycartoon to see Clay Bennett's cartoon.