Americans enjoy many privileges and “rights” that citizens and occupants of other countries do not. The most popular of all American “rights” and, indeed, the most cited of them all, is inarguably one’s right to practice “free speech,” to voice an opinion or stance, even if it’s unpopular.
However, “free speech” has become a banner of sorts that protects people from accountability. There are hate crime laws in place that cater to language, and contemporary courts seem to be at least willing to consider the ideas of fighting words, libel and slander and language with intent. But, for the most part, you can say anything you’d like.
President Barack Obama has been the recipient of quite a bit of scrutiny and the target of much “free speech.” Criticism is a necessary side effect of occupying high-profile public office, but Obama has been depicted in many unfavorable ways and not solely from political analysts and pundits. Arguably, Obama is amongst the most heavily critiqued and railed-against US presidents in history.
In one of the more scathing depictions of him, the Ralph Smeed Foundation of Caldwell, Idaho, put up an image of Obama on an electronic billboard alongside a picture of recent Aurora shooting perpetrator James Holmes.
The billboard was set up in the popular “internet meme” style, with captions accompanying both images. The picture of Holmes was given the caption, “Kills 12 in movie theater with assault rifle, everyone freaks out,” while the image of Obama was given the caption, “Kills thousands with his foreign policy, wins Nobel Peace Prize.”
While the penchant these days is for organizations and individuals who make such bold statements to backpedal, the Ralph Smeed Foundation instead felt compelled to justify rather than apologize for the faulty comparison.
Foundation spokesperson Maurice Clements insisted that the image was intended to point out how so many American people “are all outraged about that killing in Aurora, Colorado, but we’re not outraged over the boys killed in Afghanistan. We’re not saying that Obama is a lunatic.”
Poor-taste images and assertions that he might be “associated with terrorists” are nothing new for Obama. During his 2008 presidential campaign, The New Yorker ran on its cover an image of Obama, in traditional Muslim garb, “bumping fists” with his wife, adorned in military gear. And the striking resemblance of Obama’s middle name to that of a belated notorious terrorist and dictator is often brought up. However, no other president in history has been compared to a domestic terrorist and certainly not so directly. Political cartoons, being called out in a Senate chamber and campaign ads that critique track record are one thing. Inflammatory images designed to draw a connection between the president and a murderer whose acts resulted in tragedy are another thing entirely.
In a larger sense, this is bigger than Obama. It certainly is another instance of the elephant in the room regarding the so-called “post-racial” America that was allegedly ushered in the moment Obama was elected president. But more importantly, this billboard serves as an example of free speech gone horribly wrong.
In America, you might disagree with a given president’s policies or politics, and you might critique him harshly, but disagreement should not equate to outright disrespect for the leader of a nation. Regardless of whatever “parallels” may exist, it is trite to compare the president to a man responsible for a senseless act of murder; and the Ralph Smeed Foundation may not have intended to “call Obama a lunatic,” but the foundation clearly had intent by opting to draw such a comparison with the election season fast-approaching.
Is this an instance of free speech? Absolutely. But at what cost?
Bradford Howard is a creative writing senior and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.