There was a national controversy created recently when a rodeo clown, Tuffy Gessling, put together an act involving a President Barack Obama mask at the Missouri State Fair. The announcer reportedly called out “This bull’s going to get’cha, Obama! He’s gonna get’cha!” The reaction was fierce. Gessling was given a lifetime ban and the announcer, Mark Ficken, resigned. All clowns will now have to go through a “sensitivity training” course after the incident. However, The President of the Missouri Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Mary Radliff is calling for the prosecution of the key players for a hate crime. Radliff’s statements shows how broad this controversial crime has become and how it can now threaten free speech principles.
The criticism of this act is certainly understandable. It was stupid and disrespectful. However, some have questioned the need for the lifetime ban as opposed to an apology or being dismissed from this rodeo. I have seen presidents mocked and portrayed at many fairs and rodeos. I saw one fair where clowns chased around a guy in a Reagan mask during his presidency. I recall various events with people in Clinton masks. Presidents are public figures and people love to make fun of those in high places. I am not dismissing the fact that some have a deep hatred or racist view of the President. Clearly, many in the audience were hostile to Obama and loved the notion of his being chased by a bull. I am not sure what the sensitivity training will convey. Is it a lesson not to use presidents or politicians as clown-like characters. That has been done in circuses since ancient Rome. Is it not to use African-American celebrities?
We can disagree on what is the appropriate level of punishment. (I do feel that the display had an overtly political and disrespectful character that should be the subject of discipline). However, calling this a hate crime reaffirms the long-criticism of this criminal provision as a threat to free speech. As noted in a prior columns, free speech appears to be dying in the West with the increasing criminalization of speech under discrimination, hate, and blasphemy laws. To understand this threat to free speech, you need only read the interview with Ms. Radliff: “I think that a hate crime occurred,” Ratliff told KXNT Radio in Las Vegas Thursday. ”I think a hate crime occurs when you use a person’s race to depict who they are and to make degrading comments, gestures, et cetera, against them.”
So that is the crime now? Making degrading comments or gestures about a person’s race? That would criminalize a huge array of speech in the United States. In this case, Radliff objects to an act of being “disrespectful to our president, whether he be black, white, Hispanic, Latina.” She has called for the Justice Department and Secret Service to go after the rodeo clowns for their “discriminatory practices against our sitting African-American president.”
I fail to see the need to round up our rodeo clowns or criminalize parody. I do not like the use of actual people — whether presidents or not — in such acts because I feel it is mean-spirited and disrespectful. However it is not a crime. Moronic, yes but criminal, no. They are rodeo clowns which are by definition rather moronic.
What do you think? Should this be a crime? Do you believe a lifetime ban is appropriate for this type of display?