“Santa’s Butt” Can Come to Maine

Affiliate: ACLU of Maine
January 4, 2007 12:00 am

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Following ACLU Intervention, State Backs Down from Attempt to Censor Beer Labels

PORTLAND, ME – In what may have been the most talked about censorship case of the holiday season, Santa and the brewing company that wished to put him on their labels came out on top. In a letter dated December 22, 2006, Maine’s Liquor Licensing Unit Inspector Supervisor Jeffrey Austin told Shelton Brothers Brewers that they could register the label for “Santa’s Butt Winter Porter”, which features Santa’s fully-clothed derriere perched atop a barrel (or “butt”) of beer.

“We’re glad this case has been resolved in favor of artistic freedom,” said Zachary Heiden, a Maine Civil Liberties Union Staff Attorney. “It’s too bad the beer wasn’t in stores in time for Christmas, but maybe this will make government agencies stop and think before involving themselves in any future suppression of expression.”

On November 30, 2006 the Maine Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of Daniel Shelton, a specialty beer distributor who was refused permission to sell three beers because the state deemed their labels “undignified or improper.” In addition to “Santa’s Butt”, the state also barred the labels for “Les Sans Culottes,” which featured Delacroix’s classic painting Liberty Leading the People, and “Rose de Gambrinus,” which featured a watercolor painting of the King of Flanders sitting with a bare- breasted woman.

“These illustrations have been used on beer sold across the country,” said Shelton, who works with small craft-breweries around the world. “I’m glad Maine won’t be known as the state that objects to the image of Santa Claus having a beer.”

Maine law requires beer and liquor distributors to obtain a Certificate of Approval and to register the labels with the Maine Bureau of Liquor Enforcement. The Bureau ensures that labels are factually accurate – displaying the correct ingredients and the proper volume, for example- and polices the illustrations used on the labels. The strict policing that landed Santa’s Butt on the chopping block raised first amendment concerns and lead to the MCLU decision to challenge the decision.

Despite this decision, the MCLU plans to move forward with its suit to stop the agency from engaging in future censorship of beer labels.

“We’re happy about this change of heart, but the most important thing for us has always been wiping that bad regulation off the books so that no one ever has to contend with it again,” said Shelton. “State agencies shouldn’t be reviewing beer labels on open-ended subjective standards like ‘propriety’ and ‘dignity.’ Beer drinkers in Maine and everywhere should be left alone to decide for themselves what offends them or doesn’t.”

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