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

But then last week I received an "urgent" letter from Malcolm A. Heinicke, chairman of the city's Human Rights Commission. In the letter, Heinicke -- who, despite a Stanford law degree, like Ammiano appears to believe that the Supreme Court has suspended the First Amendment's applicability to San Francisco government -- asked for a meeting so the HRC could tell SF Weekly how it should apologize for Dan Siegler's satire.

I don't know what happened during childhood that made these two tiny pols turn into laughless ax-grinders. Perhaps Tom and Malcolm were class clowns who got ruler-smacked by one too many a nun. Maybe they just didn't watch enough cartoons on Saturday morning.

But I do know what to say when a couple of small pols go way, way out of their way and tippy-toe on top of constitutional lines trying to play satire police with the content of SF Weekly. It's the same thing Bugs Bunny himself would probably say:

"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 Weeklyto 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 Weeklyas 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.

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