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Week of Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The Human Rights Commission Responds

As do we: We are writing in response to John Mecklin's recent editorial, "Of Asterisks and Small Pols" [Oct. 27]. In that piece, Mecklin criticizes the San Francisco Human Rights Commission for responding to constituent complaints by seeking a discussion about a cartoon that appeared in your paper and used racial slurs1 and other offensive language in an apparent attempt to satirize Mayor Newsom's neighborhood efforts in the Mission District.

The commission's task is to address discrimination and foster intergroup relations within the city. In this capacity, we were contacted by community members who were offended by the cartoon in question. We took these concerns seriously and attempted to engage your paper in a dialogue to address them. Mecklin's editorial appears to represent your response.

At the same time he criticizes the commission, Mecklin candidly accepts that "some Mission Latinos were legitimately wounded"2 by the cartoon. In fact, Mecklin himself uses asterisks when only partially reprinting the terms in question, thereby suggesting that he appreciates that they are facially offensive. In conjunction with these concessions3, however, Mecklin explains that because the strip was actually witty political satire, the targeted groups should not have been offended. The fact that Mecklin needs4 to explain the satirical nature of the cartoon is telling (if not ironic itself), and more importantly, it demonstrates the value of the very sort of dialogue we were seeking. And, we trust that you can understand that even if we as a commission may have seen the attempted satire in the cartoon, it would not have been proper for us to do what Mecklin seemingly urges and simply dismiss the offended groups by telling them to lighten up and learn to take a joke. 5

Taking things a step further, Mecklin suggests that the commission has run afoul of the First Amendment by exploring further discussion of this cartoon and the possibility of an explanation or apology to those who were offended. Not so. The First Amendment grants SF Weekly and other papers freedom to print what it sees fit, but does not absolve them of personal responsibility for what they print. To the contrary we are very much aware and embrace the freedom of the press. Just recently, for example, we rejected a request by LGBT activists that we demand that a newsletter issued to city employees stop running a column deemed offensive to some. Instead, as here, we are simply working with the newsletter and the city department involved to make sure they are aware how the column is perceived and that pertinent concerns are voiced and considered. In this way, we are actually fostering the sort of full discussion that the First Amendment is designed to facilitate.

Finally, at the same time he accuses us of "strong-arm[ing]" your venerable paper, Mecklin contends that the commission is simply a group of "tiny pols" looking for publicity. We commissioners humbly recognize and accept our limited roles. We are not elected officials, and we understand that we do not have the authority, ability, or, frankly, the desire to "strong-arm" newspaper editors. We are all volunteers who happily serve the current administration in its ongoing efforts to stop discrimination and give voices and opportunity to those who might not otherwise have them. That's what we were doing here. And, we note that we never issued a press release or otherwise publicized our letter to your paper. You did that.

In sum, we stand by our letter. There is no question that you had the right to print the cartoon, and we are now quite comfortable that neither the cartoonist, Mecklin, nor your paper intended to offend people. But it did. And, we simply sought a discussion with you so we could address these concerns. You chose to ridicule this request and explain your relatively dismissive position via Mecklin's editorial. We can live with the personal attacks, but we hope that going forward that you will consider the concerns raised by community members. We do not consider you or your editorial responsibilities to be "tiny," and we trust that you will treat them accordingly.

Thank you for your attention to this issue. We remain willing to meet with you and community members, so please let us know if you would like our assistance in further addressing the concerns raised.

Virginia Harmon
Executive Director, Human Rights Commission
Malcolm A. Heinicke
Chair, Human Rights Commission
San Francisco

Editor's note: The above letter is breathtaking in its disingenuousness; I'll let some fresh air into the room by correcting a few errors and distortions: 1) The cartoon did not use racial slurs; 2) I said some Latinos were wounded because they had missed the obvious satire in the strip, not because anyone responding reasonably to the comic should have been wounded; 3) the use of the asterisks was obviously a joke on the hyper-PC sensibilities of the Human Rights Commission and not a "concession" of some kind; only an HRC bureaucrat could think otherwise; 4) to explain why I believed the HRC's hyperliteral misreading of the comic was politically inspired, I was forced to explain how obvious the strip's satire was; and 5) I did not suggest the commission do anything except stop sending media outlets absurd letters that offend the First Amendment.

On Oct. 14, the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, an agency of the executive branch of city government, sent SF Weekly a letter that:

was titled "URGENT," even though the cartoon in question had been printed a month earlier;

listed, as support for sending the letter, a string of influential business and political groups that had not, it seems, actually complained to the HRC, but had held a widely ignored press conference about the cartoon a month earlier;

concluded the cartoon in question was "racist" and promoted "racial hate," assertions that are, I think, untrue. Even giving the HRC every benefit of the doubt, the conclusions are wild exaggerations;


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