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Of Asterisks and Small Pols 

When the city government tries to play satire police with the press, everyone with a sense of humor -- and a belief in the Constitution -- should be concerned

Wednesday, Oct 27 2004

Page 2 of 4

"Nyah [chomp, chomp], what a couple o' maroons!"

Cartoons are a form of political commentary that uses words and drawings, together, to make a point. In the case of political cartoons, I want the point to be sharp. I expect some howls of displeasure; a political cartoonist who doesn't draw blood sometimes isn't worth the salt we pay him. And because cartoons are a combination form, in which the whole should be greater than a sum of parts, I do not edit the words in cartoons, particularly political cartoons. Editing Aaron McGruder's words would be similar to editing Bob Dylan's lyrics. Smart people just don't do it, and when I took Dan Siegler's strip on, I promised him I would either run or not run his cartoons, but I wouldn't edit them.

There are lines I won't let a cartoon cross. If it's libelous, of course, I won't print it. There is also a very subjective taste boundary that, if violated, would impel me to hold a cartoon out of the paper. If a cartoon crossed that line and got into the paper by mistake, I would apologize in writing. After all, we don't claim to be perfect, and we apologize all the time for our mistakes.

In my view, Dan Siegler's cartoon didn't cross the taste boundary; at the same time, the strip made a strong political point about racial and class attitudes. To make such a point, I think Aaron McGruder ought to be able to create a fictional TV show called Can a N***a Get a Job? To make his point, I think Dan Siegler had every right to use much less charged phrases scattered across the racial and class spectrum.

Of course, people who are upset by the contents of SF Weekly have every right to complain, to demonstrate in the street, and to write letters to the editor. We've published a guest column on the Letters page complaining of Siegler's comic.

But there is a serious problem when the government starts using its power to alter the content of newspapers or other forms of the news. When it's OK for the local legislature to hold hearings and pass resolutions for the purpose of forcing a newspaper to apologize for crossing some politically correct taste boundary set by the government, what might be next? Speech codes, in which the government would create lists of offensive words newspapers may not use? Or perhaps the tiny politicians of City Hall want SF Weekly to e-mail our cartoons and columns over for preapproval?

The Human Rights Commission's entry into this affair is especially problematic. In a letter signed by commission Chairman Malcolm Heinicke, a mayoral appointee, the commission apparently would like to -- I don't know any other way to put it, really -- strong-arm SF Weekly into retracting editorial content, lest it suffer some sort of official hearings or action designed to create political pressure and publicity that might hurt the paper, in business and other terms.

Carmen Herrera, an HRC staffer assigned to be the contact person for Heinicke's letter, said it was written in response to complaints to the commission by Mission District groups. She said the commission doesn't view the kind of letters sent to SF Weekly as infringing on freedom of the press. "We have written letters like this in the past" to businesses, including news media organizations, she said.

When I told Ms. Herrera that I thought the letter an improper attempt to constrain constitutionally protected speech, she said, "It's not an issue of that."

When I told her I thought it was precisely that kind of issue, and I would be writing a column about the letter, she said, "You don't have my permission to put my name in your paper."

After a short pause, I realized that, yes, I actually did have to explain to this representative of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission that, in America, I don't need permission to publish a government official's name in the newspaper.

Let's not get carried away here. Even if the teeny-tiny pols of City Hall want to pretend it doesn't, the First Amendment does prohibit Congress -- and miniature S.F. politicos -- from abridging freedom of the press.

No, I just wanted to point out that some liberal politicians who think they're all in favor of human rights are actually quite willing to stomp on a major part of the most important declaration of the rights of man ever written -- the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights -- when it suits their temporary political purposes.

Just about now, I was going to suggest that the small pols apologize for their thoughtless mistreatment of the Constitution, but I don't want to play the kind of game the Human Rights Commission seems so practiced at.

What Ammiano, Heinicke, and their governmental kinfolk really need to do is rent a bunch of old Warner Bros. cartoons, pour 10 or 12 shots of tequila apiece, and see if they can't relocate their satire glands.

Particularly after this column is published, I imagine SF Weekly will have angered enough S.F. politicians, small and larger, ultraleft and otherwise, that they and their hangers-on might try to keep this Puni teapot-tempest alive for another month or two or three.

This seems like a waste of time for everyone involved. I'm not going to quit believing in political satire or the First Amendment. They're probably not going to stop despising SF Weekly's irreverence and political independence.

So I've decided to propose a compromise. Isn't politics, after all, the art of same?

It's very simple. The small pols get everything they want, without doing anything they haven't already done. Here's the deal:

About The Author

John Mecklin


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