Can’t Take a Joke

Today’s under-the-fold news reported on an amicus brief the Onion filed urging the U.S. Supreme Court to protect smart-alecks from state-sanctioned bullies. When a not-very-funny parody of Parma, Ohio’s police department appeared on Facebook, self-righteous cops brought the full force of the state to bear against the perp. Armed with search warrants issued by an equally clueless municipal judge, the city’s finest raided the comic’s house, confiscating his and his roommate’s computers, cell phones, and, horrors, even the gaming console! The SWAT team tossed the miscreant into jail for four days, charged him with the crime of disrupting public services using a computer, prosecuted, and, wait for it . . . LOST when the jury found him innocent (the good citizens of Parma prevail).

After the victim recovered from eating Ohio jail food, he sued the city for violating his First Amendment rights. A Sixth Circuit Trump/Trump/Bush panel dismissed the case on the grounds that “qualified immunity” protects even the dumbest jackbooted thugs from accountability. Now the Supreme Court is being asked to weigh in.

This reminds me of my favorite U.S. Forest Service story of idiotic can’t-take-a-joke overreach. In 1992, during the height of the Timber Wars, the “Environmental Air Force” — Lighthawk — purchased newspaper ads showing Smokey Bear with a chainsaw behind his back and the tag-line “Say it Ain’t So, Smokey.”

The Timber/Fire Service was not amused. Forest Service Chief Dale Robertson threatened to sue Lighthawk for unauthorized use of Smokey’s image and name. Feeling its speech chilled, Lighthawk sued first (anyone who knew Dale should not have felt threatened — his bark was mild and his bite non-existent).

Proving that no judge is above punning when given half a shot, Judge Dimmick concluded:

By ruling that the 16 U.S.C. § 580p-4(a) and 36 C.F.R. § 271.3 are unconstitutional as applied to LightHawk the Court by no means intends to create an open season on Smokey Bear. While the question is not before the Court the government can likely regulate commercial uses of Smokey Bear as allowed by USOC. Those portions of the regulatory scheme addressing solely commercial uses remain intact. However, the statute and regulation, which impose content based restrictions on non-commercial uses, cannot be applied to LightHawk’s purely expressive political speech.

Lighthawk, The Environmental Air Force v. F. Dale Robertson, 812 F. Supp. 1095 (1993 W.D. Wash.).

1 thought on “Can’t Take a Joke”

  1. I got a belly laugh out of your post, Andy. I recall there was a plethora of Smokey lampooning before and after the FS filed its suit against Project Lighthawk. One of my favorites was the two-part sketch, if I recall correctly: 1) top sketch of Smokey Bear w/caption “The appearance of careful management” 2) lower sketch of Smokey’s head in its hand revealing a stump neck w/caption “Is really just the careful management of appearances.”


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