You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Monday, April 26, 2010


I have received several requests on Facebook that I join a group seeking to ban from Facebook a group "praying for Barack Obama's death."

I have signed on to a variety of Facebook groups. I believe in evolution. I oppose the changes to the Texas school history books. I prefer the poodle in the foil hat to Glenn Beck. I am sure there are others, and my first inclination was to sign on again. It is, after all, appalling that there would be a group of people, outside of the Taliban, praying for the death of the President of the United States.

But then I thought of something. This one group wanted to keep this other group off of Facebook. They didn't just want to express their disapproval of the group, they wanted them gone. What possible right could they have to do that? If the group praying for death violated any Facebook guidelines, Facebook would block it. I know it's a federal offense to threaten the life of the president, but I wouldn't want to dignify these death prayers by considering them a creditable threat. It seems to me we're stuck with them.

It's that pesky First Amendment. It's cropped up one other time this past week.

I've heard people express disbelief and outrage that the Supreme Court has refused to ban "crush videos." If you have been spared a definition of "crush videos," prepare yourself. They apparently involve a woman in stiletto heels crushing to death a small animal. Anyone in his or her right mind, including the nine justices on the Supreme Court, finds this nauseating. But what the court struck down was an over-broad law criminalizing depictions of cruelty to animals for commercial purposes. The case, U.S. vs. Stevens, involved a dog-fighting video. But the law, as written, could be twisted to apply to foreign films made in countries that do not have our protections for animals, bull-fighting videos, or anything a particular group objected to. (It could not, as often claimed, have been applied to depictions of hunting, because hunting does not violate any state laws.) So the law, as is often the case when legislation comes about based on outrage, needs to be rewritten.

While I was in the book business, I had several run ins with individual or groups who did not grasp the meaning of the First Amendment. Christian groups objected to displays of Wicca material. One of our own employees wanted to remove a voodoo doll set because it mocked Vooduon, a major world religion. In one Midwestern city, employees wondered why in a single day several middle-aged women came in asking for Sado Psycho Surfers. I made that title up, but it turned out that a local minister had provided his flock with a list of material that if found could be prosecuted.

The longest running incident involved a book on the history of dogfighting. A woman approached the manager of one our of Midwest stores with the book in hand and threatened to bring in the police if it wasn't removed. This incident shot up the chain of command until it landed on my desk. I wrote the woman a letter explaining that while dogfighting is justifiably against the law in most states, writing a book about it is not. She was predictably unimpressed and next threatened to bring in camera crews and local journalists to witness her protest. The manager and I agreed that in such an eventuality, the manager should make sure that any video shot or photographs taken clearly showed the name of the store.

The incident came to an abrupt halt when the manager noticed that we had sold out of the book. There we only six copies, and the complainant herself had bought three of them.

By the way, the whole "pray for Barack Obama's death" thing turns out to be the punch line of a long and actually pretty good joke that has circulated on the internet for years. During its history, the joke has been directed to people ranging from the president of Iran, the spelling of whose name I don't want to stop to look up right now, to Perez Hilton. To my knowledge, there were no efforts to banish those sites from Facebook.

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