Stamp Acts

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A while back I wrote a story about Michael Thompson and Michael Hernandez de Luna, two Chicago pranksters who liked to mail letters using their own bizarre fake stamps—an activity that eventually prompted a postal investigation. Last month I noted that Hernandez de Luna had organized a traveling exhibit of stamps created by himself and several other artists. Since these stamps weren't being used to mail anything, you might assume that the government wouldn't mind them this time.

Guess again:

The investigation began after authorities received a call from a Chicago resident.

"We need to ensure, as best we can, that this is nothing more than artwork with a political statement," Mazur said.

Two federal agents arrived at the exhibit's opening night Thursday, took photos of some of the works and asked for the artists' contact information, said CarolAnn Brown, the gallery's director.

Brown said the agents were most interested in Chicago artist Al Brandtner's work titled "Patriot Act," which depicted a sheet of mock 37-cent red, white and blue stamps showing a revolver pointed at Bush's head.

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  1. “The investigation began after authorities received a call from a Chicago resident.”

    Apparently they have a rodent problem up there in Chicago…..

  2. Free speech is important, obviously, but please remember that threatening the life of the President is explicitly outlawed. Even if you do it with art.

  3. threatening the life of the President is explicitly outlawed. Even if you do it with art.

    There should be a ban on any pictures of guns within 200 feet of a picture of the President.

  4. We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire

  5. Hernandez de Luna had organized a traveling exhibit of stamps created by himself and several other artists. Since these stamps weren’t being used to mail anything, you might assume that the government wouldn’t mind them this time.

    Only a total idiot would assume that. Do you think that an artistic exhibit featuring fake currency would be ignored by the Secret Service because no one was currently using it to buy stuff?

    But that belief is totally consistent with surprise at the fact that they’re concerned about depictions of the Prez with a gun to his head.

  6. The exhibit’s curator, Michael Hernandez de Luna, said the inquiry “frightens” him. “It starts questioning all rights, not only my rights or the artists’ rights in this room, but questioning the rights of any artist who creates ? any writer, any visual artist, any performance artist. It seems like we’re being watched,” he said.

    Freedom of expression does not extend to implied threats (the Bush stamp) or possible fraud (fake stamps in general). There is no political statement of any kind that cannot be made in other, non-harmful ways.

  7. Only a total idiot would assume that. Do you think that an artistic exhibit featuring fake currency would be ignored by the Secret Service because no one was currently using it to buy stuff?

    No, I wouldn’t. But the postal service has a long history of ignoring fake stamps that aren’t being used to mail anything — otherwise a lot of kids’ magazines and toy companies would be in trouble. Also, the postal service isn’t investigating this show; they’ve limited their attention to stamps that are actually being used as counterfeits, just as a total idiot would assume.

  8. Jesse,

    OK, you have a point there. But the Secret Service’s interest seems mainly directed towards the Bush-with-gun-to-his-head stamps, which I’m sure you will agree is a legitimate concern.

    And, btw, I don’t really think you’re a total idiot (or any kind of idiot for that matter). 🙂

  9. Col Dubois:

    “Freedom of expression does not extend to implied threats (the Bush stamp)….”

    “Implied threats”….sota like a “thoughtcrime,” right?

    “…possible fraud (fake stamps in general).”

    Aw, now we wouldn’t want to “defraud” the government monopoly on mail. No sir, that would be terrible.

  10. I don’t agree that it’s a legitimate concern, since it’s obviously a piece of political satire — crude satire, yes, but satire nonetheless. I think the Secret Service itself might agree with me: To judge from the investigator’s comments in the article, as soon as they’ve discerned that it’s simply a political comment they’re going to leave it alone. (“We need to ensure, as best we can, that this is nothing more than artwork with a political statement.”)

    The really creepy person here is whoever saw the stamp, decided it was a real threat, then called in the Secret Service to waste everyone’s time. (I say this assuming that the call was made by someone genuinely alarmed by the picture. It’s possible, I suppose, that the artist himself did it as a publicity stunt.)

  11. My favorite fake stamp was the one with Monica’s dress-complete with pecker tracks.

  12. My favorite were the envelopes you could get for the Nixon stamp that included a jail in the upper right corner. All you had to do was lick him and stick ’em in.

  13. “Licking the Nixon” sounds dirty.

  14. Freedom of expression does not extend to implied threats (the Bush stamp) or possible fraud (fake stamps in general). There is no political statement of any kind that cannot be made in other, non-harmful ways.

    Allow me to paraphrase: Freedom of expression does not extend to anything I find distasteful or controversial – it shall extend only to what I damn well tell you it does!

  15. Jesse –

    You need to check the definition of “satire.” A work of art depicting a gun to the president’s head, entitled “Patriot Act,” is not satire, crude or otherwise. It is advocacy of assassination. Maybe it’s not seriously intended (ie, the author doesn’t seriously believe that anybody is going to do it), and maybe it’s not explicit, but it’s as close as you can get. The message is that killing the president is a patriotic act. What part of that message is satirical?

  16. Well, no. “As close as you can get” would be actually instructing someone to carry out an assassination.

    As for what parts of the stamp are satirical, I’d say the play on the phrase “Patriot Act” is the most obvious. If you look at the picture itself, you’ll see it also spoofs the familiar layout of a stamp bearing the face of a president.

    The artist may well be of the view that assassinating Bush would be a good thing. Who knows? But it’s just foolish to interpret his image as an actual threat on the man’s life.

  17. I am fascinated by the turn this comments thread has taken.

    A fake postage stamp in an art exhibition drew the attention of the Secret Service. Let me give the benefit of the doubt to those who suggest this needed to be investigated by the Secret Service. I want to know exactly how long it took the Secret Service to respond to the phone call of the Chicago resident.
    Because, even giving the concerned citizen the benefit of the doubt, an agency like the Secret Service surely has to perform some amount of “risk triage”. That is, it has to determine how much effort to expend on any given phone call it receives. And if the Secret Service is so free on time that it can immediately respond to, say, a call about a teenager drawing Bush’s head on a stick — well, the President should be concerned. (And my taxpayer dollars are being wasted.)
    With that said, I am otherwise sympathetic to a Secret Service which is surely paranoid about failing to follow-up on any plot on the President’s life. It’s just that stories like these make me feel that they are being _comprehensive_ and following up on every call rather than being _smart_ and dedicating more resources to good tips. And no, I don’t really know how to define a “good tip.” But the Secret Service should, shouldn’t it? I mean, couldn’t the “postage stamp plot” issue been resolved with a few phone calls and a background search, at most?

    Anon

  18. Jesse –

    That argument is specious. Here all along, I thought you meant that the act of calling for or committing assassination was satirical. Now I learn (hand smacking forehead) that the piece of art is satirizing…stamps! To quote my favorite early-80s movie, there’s a fine line between clever and stupid, and you’re on the other side of that line, Jesse.

    I shouldn’t have to say this, but the question is not whether stamps are being satirized, but assassination. There is no satirical element in this depiction of assassination. The artist is making an unambiguous political statement…about assassination, not stamps, for chrissake. The statement is that killing this president would be patriotic.

    I happen to think this president is an anti-intellectual, incurious, dullwitted clown, just so you don’t mistake my point for rah rah pro-Bush boosterism.

  19. Pete: I don’t see why it matters whether the stamp was a satire of assassination or a satire that invoked assassination. The important, obvious point here is that it was a representation of an assassination, not an actual assassination, or threat of an assassination, or plot of an assassination. Treating it as a real threat is as silly as treating this guy as a real threat.

  20. I might be wrong here, but it seems to me that part of the problem is that people tend to stop viewing public figures as human beings and start viewing them only as symbols of the things they disapprove of.

    If I made stamps that had the artist’s face on them in a set of cross-hairs and treated them in a fashion that made blowing his head off a “Patriot Act” I bet he’d be screaming that I’d used his image illegally, violated his right to privacy, threatened and intimidated him, etc. etc. ad nauseum.

    But it’s ok for him to do it, see, because it’s a political statement. Kinda like the assassination of Kennedy was a political statement and not actual murder.

    I’m not saying he should be locked up, but a hefty fine might not be completely out of order. Frankly, I think it would be a good idea for a sitting President to start a few civil suits along the lines of the things I mentioned in the second paragraph. At the very least it would be good for Jay Leno’s monologues, which have suffered greatly since Clinton left office.

  21. The fact that politicians are public figures is why artists are allowed to use their image without permission. The same applies to celebrities. If this weren’t the case, it would be impossible to do photo journalism. The only exception is if the photo was taken when the figure had a reasonable expectation of privacy. Otherwise they’re fair game. Can’t stand people using your unauthorized image, then don’t become famous.

  22. Representation may be merely representation or it may also, at the same time, be advocacy. This was clearly advocacy. The issue of representation is a dodge.

  23. Deus ex Machina,

    I’m not arguing that the use of images of public figures isn’t legal. I’m arguing that using their images in a manner that clearly constitutes endorsement of violence to that person, public figure or not, is not protected speech. Anymore than it should be legal for me to put up “Michael Thompson and Michael Hernandez de Luna – Wanted Dead Or Alive” posters with a photo of the two at the public opening of their art show.

    I was only saying that I think these guys are basically saying that advocating assassination is protected speech – it seems clear that it’s not.

    I also think it likely that the artists will claim that it is Bush’s policies and not the man himself they want to see “shot in the head.”

    I still think think it’s amazingly crappy and dehumanizing to equivocate the person and their policies in this manner, based on the idea that a person’s policies make them worthy of assassination because they’re the public figure associated with the policies.

  24. Slippery Pete: I don’t care if it’s “advocacy.” Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, depending on how literally you take the sentiment. I don’t take it literally myself, but that’s not the point.

    The point, I repeat, is that it’s not a threat. I don’t care if the guy thinks the president should be shot. There’s no evidence that he’s actually going to shoot him — or, for that matter, that he made this stamp in hopes that it would inspire someone else to shoot him.

    Rob: Just to be clear, Michael Thompson didn’t have anything to do with the show, and Hernandez De Luna didn’t create the image in question. The artist responsible for the stamp is named Al Brandtner.

  25. Sorry, I should have been more careful and it should have read “Al Brandtner – Wanted Dead or Alive.” D’Oh! (But I DON’T advocate either assassination endorsement, literally nor figuratively it seems to be beyond the protection of the 1st Amendment, something I never thougth I’d see myself write…)

  26. Jesse –

    You say:

    “I don’t care if it’s ‘advocacy.'”

    Well, the law most certainly does care, Jesse.

    It’s not only direct threats against the president’s life that are (rightfully) illegal. Incitements that encourage others to assassinate are also illegal if they’re intended seriously.

    And as I said earlier, this piece of art is probably as close to actual incitement as one can come. The artist isn’t exactly saying “kill the president,” but he is saying “the president should be killed.” That’s a very, very fine distinction. You may not have a problem with it, but I do, most of the people on this board do, and the Secret Services does and should.

    Libertarian types frequently divide actions into those that should be illegal and those that don’t. They often refuse to discuss the morality or legitimacy of legal behavior. So, even if the SS and the law say that “killing the president would be a patriotic act” is legal, you and I can point out its offensiveness, idiocy, and profound irresponsibility.

  27. Brian Courts:

    If by “paraphrase” you mean “totally misrepresent,” you hit the nail on the head.

    The Supreme Court has always recognized exceptions to the freedom of speech and expression, including those I mentioned.

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