NYCLU Demands Retraction of White House Threat to Censor Parody of Vice President's Wife
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
NEW YORK–The New York Civil Liberties Union today sent a letter to the Office of Vice President Richard Cheney vowing to protect the free speech rights of a political humorist whose website satirizes Mr. Cheney’s wife, Lynne.
“The right to parody political figures like Lynne Cheney lies at the heart of the First Amendment,” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the NYCLU. “We will defend the website against any effort to censor it by the Bush Administration. This is government intimidation, pure and simple.”
In a letter received on February 13 by the website’s editor, 31-year-old John Wooden, the Office of the Vice President objected to photographs and a “fictional biographical statement” about Ms. Cheney found at http://www.whitehouse.org. The letter also objected to the website’s use of the “seal of the President” — despite the fact that it features a vulture instead of a bald eagle — and demanded that all of the material be removed.
“No reasonable person would ever think that this website is sponsored or endorsed by the United States Government, given the site’s patently satirical content,” the NYCLU said in its letter to the Vice President’s office. “Moreover, at the bottom of each page of the website is the description ‘a chickenhead productions parody.'”
The NYCLU also pointed out that “the Supreme Court of the United States has held that the First Amendment fully protects satirical treatment of public figures, even when that satire is outrageous and false.” The NYCLU further noted that in 1988 the High Court held that Hustler Magazine was free to publish an advertisement suggesting that the Reverend Jerry Falwell had had sex with his mother in an outhouse.
In its letter, NYCLU asked that the Office of the Vice President promptly notify them in writing that it intends to take no further action against the website. “In the absence of such a response, we intend to proceed with steps necessary to protect Mr. Wooden’s First Amendment rights,” the group said.
“The letter from Mr. Cheney’s office reflects a fundamental disregard of the First Amendment,” said Christopher Dunn, Associate Legal Director of the NYCLU. “If Administration officials had any common sense — and any sense of humor — they would just laugh at the parody on this website rather than try to censor it.”
The letter to the Vice President’s office follows:
March 4, 2003
David S. Addington
Counsel to the Vice President of the United States
Office of the Vice President
Washington, D.C. 20501
Dear Mr. Addington,
On behalf of John Wooden, we write in response to your threatening letter to Mr. Wooden about his satirical website In that letter, which Mr. Wooden received on February 13, 2003, you “request” that Mr. Wooden delete from the website certain information about and images of Vice President Dick Cheney’s wife Lynne Cheney.
As you undoubtedly are aware given your citation to the case in your letter, the Supreme Court of the United States has held that the First Amendment fully protects satirical treatment of public figures, even when that satire is outrageous and false. See Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988) (holding that First Amendment protected satirical advertisement suggesting that Reverend Jerry Falwell had had sex with his mother in an outhouse). All of the material about Mrs. Cheney on falls well within the protections recognized in Hustler Magazine, and nothing in sections 50 and 51 of the Civil Rights Law of New York can or does override the First Amendment protections that apply to this material.
As for your suggestion that the “seal of the President” appears on the website in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 713, that plainly is without merit. As an initial matter, the “seal” on the site depicts not a bald eagle but a vulture. Second, the statute prohibits use of the seal “for the purpose of conveying, or in a manner reasonably calculated to convey, a false impression of sponsorship or approval by the Government of the United States.” Independent of the express disclaimer on the website, no reasonable person would ever think that this website is sponsored or endorsed by the United States Government, given the site’s patently satirical content. Moreover, at the bottom of each page of the website is the description “a chickenhead productions parody.”
In light of this, we believe that the material on Mr. Wooden’s website about Mrs. Cheney is entirely lawful and is fully protected by the First Amendment.
Finally, we are puzzled as to why the Office of the Vice President is officially involving itself in a matter concerning Mrs. Cheney, who to the best of our knowledge is not a government official. Regardless of the explanation for this, however, your official letter, with its veiled threat of legal action, has a particularly “chilling effect” upon Mr. Wooden’s exercise of his First Amendment rights.
We therefore must ask that you promptly inform us in writing that the Office of the Vice President intends to take no further action with respect to Mr. Wooden’s website. In the absence of such a response, we intend to proceed with steps necessary to protect Mr. Wooden’s First Amendment rights.
Christopher Dunn, Associate Legal Director
Arthur Eisenberg, Legal Director
New York Civil Liberties Union
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