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The Storm of the Teeth 

The ever-overreaching Human Rights Commission launches an official investigation of ... a barroom display of a few Indian teeth

Wednesday, May 18 2005
Norman Hobday sits at the north end of his SOMA fern bar in a wrinkled T-shirt, stained overalls, disheveled short gray hair, and gray stubble, describing his astonishment at a group of activists animated by the idea that Hobday's an insensitive, arrogant boor. He's extending a riff begun in a conversation the day before.

"A bunch of dirty Indians came in that didn't have jobs. They're bums. They're worthless, shiftless people making a mountain out of a molehill," Hobday says. "I told them, 'Why don't you guys get a job, go to work. Get off welfare.' It's easier sitting on your ass and running your mouth than doing something productive."

Hobday's at the vortex of a minor tempest among left-wing activists inspired by a box of teeth displayed in a case behind Hobday's barstool. According to a note in the display, the teeth belonged to Col. George Custer's "squaw." The renowned Seventh Cavalry Indian fighter knocked them "out of her mouth in a jealous pique by the 'General' for slipping into the tent of the handsome Lt. James Sturgis on a frosty 'Kansas morn,'" the note said.

Activists visited the bar several times to complain. They sent memos to Indian rights and other groups and posted missives denouncing Hobday's bar decoration on the Internet. After a month or so of this activity, the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, a city agency set up 15 years ago to combat prejudice, stepped in. And earlier this month, commission employee Carolyn Hom paid a visit.

"I wanted to let you know it is under investigation at this time. But I can't comment because it is under investigation," Hom told me in a voice mail message.

For Hobday, the idea of a government inquiry was too much to bear. A couple of weeks ago, he says, he told a barkeep to take the teeth off the wall. And, Hobday says, they've been thrown in the trash.

"Now they're buried in San Francisco city dump, and the Indians will be happier, and they can pray over the debris in the city dump out there right now," Hobday says.

The Custer squaw tooth display was indisputably offensive.

Now it's gone.

Kudos for Carolyn Hom and the Human Rights Commission. Right?

Not quite.

As it's done numerous times during the past 12 months, the commission has taken on the role of self-assigned public censor. It's stepped into a quagmire where no government agency legitimately belongs. And the commission has once again made itself, the city and county of San Francisco, and taxpayers who pay the salaries of commission staff into fools.

The campaign against Hobday's bar, you see, is the brainchild of a notorious hatemonger named Ward Churchill, a fringe-paranoid-left-darling college professor. He's gained notoriety for calling the victims of 9/11's terrorism "little Eichmanns" in reference to the Nazi death camp czar. Churchill's current shtick involves also naming anyone who wanders into Hobday's bar the moral equivalent of a Jew-killing Nazi. Churchill's words inspired the campaign against the teeth display, and this same crazed rhetoric spawned a protest movement back in Colorado to try to officially censor Churchill.

So in Churchill and Hobday we have an offensive free-speech icon inspiring a movement to silence an offensive free speaker.

I can think of no better forum for the parsing of ideas of cultural sensitivity, freedom of speech, and, yes, human rights than this clash of noxious titans. But, thanks to Hom and the Human Rights Commission, instead of a fascinating and salubrious public debate, we have a government censorship action on behalf of a paranoid left-wing kook.

The Human Rights Commission has spent much of the last year putting the government's imprimatur on embarrassing censorship actions. Isn't it time taxpayers censored the Human Rights Commission?

The Human Rights Commission was chartered in 1990 to enforce anti-discrimination laws, create and run an anti-hate-crime program, and promote "mediation and conciliation of inter-group disputes and tensions."

The agency has interpreted this last phrase as a barn door wide enough to accommodate a policy I'll call Big Fat Buttinsky.

Last summer, commission officials sent a letter formally chastising the private, nongovernmental Police Officers Association trade union for accepting and distributing tickets to an event featuring a famous right-wing radio host.

Let's not confuse principles here. If I had been the first reporter to get wind of the POA's support for the Michael Savage event last year, I'd have skewered the union in print. Cops are supposed to arrest gay bashers. So why would they patronize Savage, an advocate of gay persecution? In America, a political columnist is allowed to call private individuals and organizations to task for holding objectionable opinions.

A government agency, however, is not.

Beyond this pure principle of free speech, stanching discussion in this way has a corrosive effect on policy. In San Francisco, we've long looked askance at what some say is the retrograde culture and character of our city's Police Department. Last summer, instead of potential debate on this subject, we got -- thanks to the Human Rights Commission -- a clownish case of government censorship.

A few months later, SF Weekly Puni cartoonist Dan Siegler made fun of our mayor, who had airily proposed "cleaning up" the polyglot Mission neighborhood. Who was the mayor planning to clear out during the cleanup? the cartoon asked, poking fun at the racist connotations of the mayor's rhetoric by listing 35 potential mayoral purge victims, including "tweenage pregnant Mexicans." Some Latino readers were understandably offended at the term. Did this mean it was angry letter writing time? Advertiser boycott time? Was it time for public discussion of whether it's appropriate for critics to parody offensive government policy by employing offensive language?

No, it was, courtesy of the Human Rights Commission, Big Fat Buttinsky time.

In response to complaints, the commission sent a letter to SF Weekly, using language insinuating the possibility of government-orchestrated retaliation and demanding an apology for the cartoon.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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