The Boston Backlash
by Wendy McElroy

How did one bar in Boston react to Black History Month this past February? According to the official complaint brought against it by the government of Massachusetts, "Respondent Tom English's Cottage ... displayed at least 20 stuffed monkeys." One of them -- a gorilla that sported a crown -- represented Martin Luther King, Jr. At least, this is the interpretation that the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination -- appropriately abbreviated MCAD -- places upon the display based "upon information and belief."

Thus, the bar is charged with "discrimination on the basis of race in a place of public accommodation" because the display this mocked "the celebration of Black History Month." The complaint is not filed on behalf of a third party, but by the government itself.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Boston Licensing Board voted to hold a public hearing about the bar's conduct. Declaring the Board to have "zero tolerance" for prejudice, he announced that, if "they were running something that's offensive to the community," then the bar's alcohol license could be revoked.

Eugene Volokh, a Professor at the UCLA Law School, became interested enough in the case to have his library request news articles and documents concerning it. Volokh explained,

"None of the articles that the MCAD faxed to us ... even mentions the First Amendment. The MCAD's public statements strongly suggest that the Commission thinks the display was illegal if it was intended as mockery; its inquiry now is focused only on deciding whether this was the intention."

Yet mockery is a venerated form of free speech, especially in light of some circumstances surrounding Black History Month in Massachusetts. For example, the government virtually declared it to be a state-sanctioned event in which all decent people should participate. Massachusetts' Lt. Governor Jane Swift opened the month-long celebration with a proclamation from Gov. Paul Celluci that read, in part, "It is appropriate for all residents of Massachusetts to honor the contributions of African-Americans this month, to take cognizance of this event and participate in its observance." In making this statement, the Governor must have been aware that he was promoting only one side of a heated debate.

Standing at the State House beside several politicians, Northeastern University provost David Hall admitted, "Some argue that this observance is motivated by a political agenda and it has nothing to do with education and awareness." He regarded such voices to be "cynics" who "regard Black History Month as a sterile byproduct of America's compulsion with political correctness."

Or they could be people who don't believe government has any business telling us which holidays to celebrate, what reactions to manifest or which history deserves our respect. Of course, this judgment could be harsh. Celluci may venerate all American history as a general policy. Traditionally, April is Confederate History Month. Perhaps Celluci intends to promote the South's contribution to American history as well. Anyone who believes this deserves the surprise awaiting him on April Fools Day.

But neither governmental hypocrisy nor PC propaganda masquerading as education is the point in the bar matter: both can be assumed. The issue is freedom of speech. Political satire and mockery have deep roots in American history that date back to 1754, at least, when Benjamin Franklin drew what some call "the first American political cartoon."

In their book, "Drawn and Quartered: the History of American Political Cartoons," Stephen Hess and Sandy Northrop explain what has happened to political mockery in our time. They write:

"Caricatures of [Martin Luther] King, Malcolm X and the other African American leaders who rose to prominence are hard to find. Cartoonists and their newspapers grew so sensitive to the volatility of caricaturing black leaders, fearing that they would be perceived as racial slurs ... Martin Luther King Jr. became an invisible man in the cartoons."

From Franklin to Mark Twain to H.L. Mencken, the healthy American response to a sacred cow has been -- think hamburger! Now you need the sacred cow's approval.

The Boston bar case illustrates another manner in which freedom of speech is being denied as well. Namely, it illustrates the increasingly broad governmental definition of what constitutes both harassment and a "hostile environment." At his web site, Prof. Volokh explains how the definition of harassment has come to include such material as "Religious articles in newsletters and Bible verses on paychecks ... anti-veteran posters ... Goya's 'Naked Maja' painting ... any and all offensive ... speech implicating considerations of race." Moreover, in his page entitled "Hostile Public Accommodations Environment' Harassment Law," Volokh demonstrates how harassment law is intruding into such public places, as restaurants and bars, thus allowing government to suppress language it considers offensive in public gathering places.

The question is not whether the Boston bar display was in good taste or morally proper. Too many free speech advocates fall into the trap of beginning and ending their "defense" with a moral condemnation of the party they are defending. In terms of the First Amendment, personal responses are irrelevant and only serve to clutter the issue. Nor does it matter if the opinions expressed are factually right or wrong. The only question is whether the owners of the bar had a constitutionally protected right to express a time-honored form of political protest on their own property: that is, mockery. The First Amendment offers a clear response: "Congress shall make no law ... prohibiting freedom of speech."

Ironically, it was in neighborhood inns and taverns that much of the American Revolution was plotted. One wonders if the British tried to revoke their liquor licenses.