February 25, 2009
A New York state senator holds up the cartoon that ran in the New York Post on Feb. 18, 2009. (Craig Ruttle/Courtesy The Associated Press)

A New York state senator holds up the cartoon that ran in the New York Post on Feb. 18, 2009. (Craig Ruttle/Courtesy The Associated Press)

A Chimp and a Controversial Cartoon. Free Speech or Censorship?

The controversy over an editorial cartoon printed Feb.18 in the New York Post is a good example of how the First Amendment protects the free speech rights of all sides in a dispute — at least until the government gets involved.

At issue is a cartoon showing a chimpanzee that had been shot dead by two police officers, leaving two obvious bullet holes in the animal’s chest. One officer is saying, "They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill."

The cartoon by Sean Delonas was published about a week after Congress adopted President Barack Obama’s much-debated economic recovery legislation and a few days after a chimpanzee mauled a woman in Connecticut and later was shot to death by a police officer.

Post editors and Delonas said the image was intended to link those two news events in a satirical reference to the slipshod method in which the economic legislation had been adopted. But to many Americans — particularly African Americans — the cartoon was a racist image of Obama. To others, it was an oblique, if not overt, call for presidential assassination. Still others faulted it for making light of the attack, with the victim still undergoing intensive medical treatment.

The First Amendment’s provision for a free press certainly protected the Post’s right to publish the cartoon. But within hours, the amendment’s provisions for free speech, as well as assembly and petition, also came into play. In New York and elsewhere, Post editors, Delonas and Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corporation which owns the newspaper, were condemned as racists. Pickets appeared in front of the newspaper’s headquarters.

The Post initially defended the cartoon as a satire about Washington politics. On Feb. 24, Murdoch accepted responsibility and personally apologized to "any reader who felt offended and even insulted."

Political cartoons have had a long and controversial history in America.

  • • An early engraving by Paul Revere depicted armed British troops firing point-blank on unarmed colonials during the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770. The factually inaccurate print was circulated widely throughout the colonies weeks after the incident and is considered significant in spurring anti-British sentiment.

  • • In the 1870s, Thomas Nast’s biting cartoons in Harper’s Weekly magazine about political corruption established the modern editorial cartoon genre. A Sept. 30, 1871, cartoon portrayed catholic bishops as crocodiles crawling up on a riverbank to attack American families.

But cartoons and illustrations of African Americans uniquely touch the bitter U.S. history of race relations. Past portrayals used apes and monkeys and were replete with drawings that employed gross distortions of facial characteristics.

The nation’s founders envisioned free speech rights as providing for a robust and lively exchange of views. But when some critics called for a review of Murdoch’s application to the Federal Communications Commission to waiver its restrictions on owning a certain number of broadcast and print outlets in a single city, they raised the specter of government-as-censor — and that’s in direct opposition to what the First Amendment preserves and protects.

There is nothing in the 45 words of the First Amendment that require Americans to speak politely, civilly, positively or negatively, or in good taste. The amendment protects the speech of those whose words — or images — repel or please American sensibilities.

In fact, the First Amendment is predicated on the idea that disputes like the one over the Post cartoon are best settled through free and open exchange — the "marketplace of ideas" — rather than through censorship.

As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis noted in a 1927 opinion: "If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, [then] the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence."

For information on other First Amendment issues, please visit www.firstamendmentcenter.org.

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