I usually try to keep my political views to myself. First of all, very few people agree with me. Second of all, those who do agree just don't vote or exhibit any interest whatsoever in political action. Third, I rarely have an appropriate forum available for the expression of my views other than those occasions when people gather at my home for beer or Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
But seeing as I've worn the Bill gates angle a bit thin over the last few weeks, I thought I'd go ahead and focus my weekly column on an issue that's dear to all creative professionals out here in California.
In case you didn't know it, you can't function as a professional artist or writer in Los Angeles without a license. And for those of you whose work involves public forums, such as mural artists, you also need to worry about permits. One such artist is Mike McNeilly, who was arrested 15 months ago for refusing to stop work on a mural he was creating on a building in Westwood. Though he had the building owner's permission to start the project, he had failed to obtain a permit from the city.
Not so surprising to those of us who've lost all faith in the Democratic and Republican aristocracy running this country into the ground, McNeilly was, in fact, painting a picture of the Statue of Liberty at the time of his arrest. The subject matter isn't relevant to the legal issues at hand, but it does add that necesary touch of irony to propel a story like this to the national consciousness.
McNeilly says now that he didn't apply for a permit because he knew it would be turned down. "That's prior restraint," he told the Los Angeles Times. It's not just that. It's the culmination of years of meandering interpretations on the meaning of free speech and press by legislators, executives and adjudicators alike. On the one hand, we've gained ground in areas this country's founders never could have imagined. On the other, we've given the government so much jurisdiction over our lives that we're never more than a bureaucrat's signature away from losing it all.
First the courts divided speech into two categories: commercial and protected. Then legislators handed over legislative authority to executive agencies like the Federal Trade Commission and the FCC, among others, whose vague legislativistic policies toward commercial speech render the concept of written law laughable. You can say you have the best ab exerciser on the market, for example, but you can't say you lost 10 pounds using this exerciser unless you have scientific evidencea vague standard in itselfto back up your claim before you make the claim. At least for now. But that's just commercial speech, right? It doesn't impact youoh, until the definition of "commercial" gets expanded to include ad-supported newspapers and magazines.
Then we took "protected" speech and broke it down further. We can't say or depict "obscene" things, obscenity being defined by the venerated Oliver Wendell Holmes as, "I knows it when I sees it," or words to that effect. We can't say or depict things that pose a perceived threat to the public or ourselves, such as passing out clippings of the U.S. Constitution at the line to an army recruiting office during a time of war or making a joke about a bomb in an airport. We can't say or depict things that run contrary to "compelling state interest," a concept introduced by the Supreme Court and upheld as recently as 1992. "Compelling state interest" includes, for example, a prohibition against newspapers publishing the results of one state's lottery in a state that doesn't have a lottery. Now that's compelling!
And then we have the two other issues relevant to this particular case. One is the requirement that artists and writers receive permits and licenses to practice their work. The other is the notion that "city beautification," otherwise known as standardization on salmon and torquoise paint schemes, supercedes an individual's right to post verbeage or images that run counter to the Central Committee's understanding of Beauty.
We've given way too much to the government, and we've taken way too much from it. We have written law, and we have a hierarchy within this written law. When we accept the notion that we need to ask the government permission for what is clearly ours based upon the supreme law of the land, we open the way for abuses like the one in the McNeilly case.
McNeily was supposed to have gone on trial this last Friday, but it was delayed until May 26, unless an appellate court steps in and grants a further delay. He faces actual misdemeanor charges in the case and, if found guilty, will face six months in actual jailall for painting a picture of the Statue of Liberty.
Since the time of his arrest, McNeilly has gone back to his mural and painted the word "censored" over it. Good for him. (If I had been arrested, I might have also smacked around a few people, but that's just me, and perhaps I shouldn't even write that because it could be interpreted as a terrorist threat, and I could have all of my possesions confiscated and auctioned off before I even went to trial.)
The McNeilly trial should be a rallying point for all creative professionals who are tired of dealing with the tyrrany of bureaucracyparticularly in Los Angeles and its surroundings.
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Dave Nagel is the still somewhat new Senior Producer of Creative Mac. An eight-year veteran of the print publishing world, Nagel covered a broad range of topics in the areas of technology and marketing. As a Mac psychofanatic since 1987, he's finally landed his dream job: earning a living writing about his favorite topic. If you have something to say, please send a polite e-mail to [email protected]. (Let's not try to bring him down from his euphoria too soon.)
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