NE01

Farts are Funny; Censorship is Not.

Some truths that I hold self-evident:

  • Googly eyes are inherently funny.
  • A well timed fart (or fart noise) can be a source of amusement, especially if the associated odor is minimal.
  • Vandalism is a crime.
  • Our First Amendment right to free speech is a cornerstone of democracy.

How do these seemingly random things come together?  Let’s find out.

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry has represented Nebraska’s 1st congressional district since 2005.  He is also a lock to be reelected today (fivethirtyeight.com predicts Fortenberry has a 99.8% chance of winning).  Despite his strong likelihood of victory, he has numerous campaign signs and billboards around Lincoln.

One of these signs was recently vandalized by an unknown perpetrator.  They placed two large googly eyes over Rep. Fortenberry’s face and managed to change the “o” in his name to a different vowel.

For reasons I’ll get into below, I am not comfortable sharing an image of the vandalized sign.  Thankfully, State Senator Adam Morfeld has provided an image that a) pays homage to the vandals’ efforts and b) comes with a built-in liability waiver:

Now, you may be asking yourself why I’m not comfortable sharing an image of the vandalized sign.  My response is this:  I like my job and I don’t want elected officials, their staff members, and/or supporters coming after me if I am amused by flatulence and googly eyes.

While that probably sounds like a ridiculously unnecessary overreaction, there is evidence to suggest that some within Representative Fortenberry’s staff are very sensitive about the vandalism.

As the Lincoln Journal-Star reports, Fortenberry’s chief of staff – William “Reyn” Archer – called UNL political science professor Ari Kohen after Kohen “liked” a Facebook post containing a picture of the altered sign.  When Kohen did not immediately return Archer’s message, Archer escalated the issue to Kohen’s boss (the Poli Sci department chair), his boss’s boss (the dean of the College of Arts & Sciences), and his boss’s boss’s boss (Chancellor Ronnie Green) via email.

When Kohen and Archer spoke via phone last week, Archer appears* to try to link Kohen’s “like” of the image to an implicit endorsement of criminal vandalism and scolds him because of the message it could send.

*In fairness, I’m basing my opinion off of a seven minute snippet of the 50+ minute conversation that Kohen posted to YouTube.  You can listen to it here.  It is quite possible that Archer was a complete gentleman for the other 40-some minutes of the call.  Frankly, I don’t want to know.  Dr. Archer, please do not call me or my employer.

At best, Fortenberry’s chief of staff is attempting to censor the free speech of state employee.  At worst, Fortenberry’s chief of staff is threatening to make Kohen’s life very difficult through political pressure on UNL officials, and attempting to stifle what faculty members can say and do.  Most concerning is Archer’s suggestion that he may utilize “a First Amendment opportunity to put you out there in front of everybody,” which I take as a not-so-thinly veiled threat to unleash a wave of partisan outrage at Kohen.

Once that train leaves the station, who knows where it stops?  As Kohen speculated on Twitter: “In the past, such efforts have directly resulted in weeks of threatening letters, voicemails, and email messages to faculty members who found themselves publicly called out in this way (including several of my colleagues at UNL). These have included death threats.”  This is a good time to mention that the conversation between Dr. Archer and Professor Kohen took place the day before the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, which is likely why all of this has hit the fan.

This entire thing is equal parts ridiculous and infuriating, which is why the way the issue was handled by Rep. Fortenberry’s staff angers and concerns me:  It is warning shot fired across the bow of anybody who dares to laugh at an elected official.

And let’s be clear: this is not a cruel personal attack on Fortenberry or his family.  It’s not libelous or slanderous.  It was not part of a calculated attack in a toss up Congressional race.  It is pair of ridiculous googly eyes and a piece of tape used to transform Fortenberry’s name into crude 7th grade humor.  The person on the receiving end of these threats had no hand in vandalizing the sign, nor did he post the picture to Facebook.  He merely clicked “like” because, like I (and probably you) think, googly eyes and fart jokes can be pretty damn amusing.  Kohen’s position as a professor at a public university is presumably all the leverage Fortenberry’s office needs to try to intimidate and impose their will.

And that is what scares me.

You see, my work – in intentionally vague terms – serves employees across various levels of government (city, county, and state) from coast to coast.  As such, it is theoretically possible that some of my work may directly impact departments and agencies in areas within Nebraska’s first congressional district, or led/impacted by Fortenberry’s political allies.

Look:  I know that out of respect for my employer and the customers we serve, it is important to have a very strong filter on what I post here and on social media.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to chime in on a topic, but held back out of extreme cautiousness.

I’ve long subscribed to the social media theory that if you wouldn’t say it to somebody’s face, then don’t say it on Facebook or Twitter.  But here’s the thing – I would have no issue with telling Jeff Fortenberry – my Congressman for the past 12 years, and the foreseeable future* – that I thought the picture of him with googly eyes was hilarious.  I’d also ask him how many times he was called “Fartenberry” as a kid, because I’d wager the cost of a campaign billboard this was not the first time.

*As thin skinned and petty as Fortenberry looks in all of this, until the Nebraska Democrats can find a viable candidate to truly challenge Fortenberry, the gig will be his for as long as he wants it.  I’ll be shocked if this incident makes a noticeable dent in the support Fortenberry receives today.

I don’t think it is too much to ask that I retain basic First Amendment rights without feeling paranoid that somebody is going put unnecessary pressure on me.

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