On private property, a sign depicting Obama in a diaper: “Change me! I stink!”

posted at 4:05 pm on September 29, 2011 by Tina Korbe

OK, confession: When I saw this headline on Drudge, I actually laughed out loud. Something about the word “stink” is just funny to me. And I had no reason not to laugh because I generally agree with the sentiment the sign expresses: Obama is a master at making excuses, which does come across as a little, well, babyish. In other words, the sign doesn’t offend me.

But I also think some of the protesters (yes, people gathered to protest a sign on private property!) have a point, too. When George W. Bush was president, I frequently countered Bush bashers by pointing out the dignity that inheres in the position of the presidency and pleading with my friends to respect that. Lambasting ill-advised policies and pointing out blatant personal hypocrisies are one thing. Juvenile attacks and general poor taste are another. Not sure where the line is (and also not convinced this crosses it), but important to remember it exists somewhere.

That said, this is primarily a question of free speech. In light of the White House’s “bully problem,” it’s more important than ever that we defend this most fundamental of rights. Does sign owner Timothy Reily have the right to post a billboard-size sign on his own private property — but overlooking a public street — that portrays the president in an insulting light? The New Orleans City Council is already hard at work trying to find the exact phrase in the city’s zoning laws that will force Reily to take it down. Such zoning laws are presumably content-neutral “time, place and manner” restrictions that don’t technically abridge our freedom of speech under the Constitution. But that the City Council is so scrupulously scouring city code in response to protests of the actual content of the sign makes the city’s approach a little more dubious.

In general, I’d prefer to err on the side of more freedom, not less. In “The Virginia Report of 1799-1800, touching the alien and sedition acts,” James Madison argued that even speech that creates “a contempt, a disrepute or hatred [of the government] among the people” should be tolerated because the only way of determining whether such contempt is justified is “by a free examination [of the government’s actions” (h/t Eugene Volokh in The Heritage Guide to the Constitution). In other words, it doesn’t matter if these signs cause folks to think less of the president. Such speech is protected. Several of Reily’s neighbors recognized that fact and spoke up in support of him. “I think it’s fine. It’s on his property,” one said. “He can say whatever he wants.”


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