June 1999

By David Trumbull

I guess they just couldn't take a joke


"Maybe I just don't have enough of a sense of humor," said Cambridge City Councilor Henrietta Davis, defending her council order condemning humorous billboards advertising blue jeans. This being an election year in Cambridge we can expect an epidemic of humor impairment among politicians. In fact, it has already claimed its first victim.

Last month the "Church of the SubGenius," a self-described artistic movement of social satire was banned from performing in Cambridge after it was falsely linked with the Colorado Trenchcoat Mafia. It seems that City Councilor Kenneth Reeves, ever on the lookout for right-wing conspiracies--and not above inventing them when it serves his purpose, as this author, the victim of one of Reeve's smear campaigns can attest--read the group's hate group parody, failed to understand the humor, and set out to become a one-man Watch and Ward Society. Councilor Reeves intimidated the Middle East, the club where the group was to perform, prompting the club to cancel the contract. The Church of the SubGenius did find an alternative venue however at a real church, and explained to Reeves that it had all been a mistake.

Beware of wounded animals or politicians who have been duped.

According to published reports, Reeves continued to quote the group's web literature out of context, deliberately fueling the mistaken idea that this anti-hate group satire was itself dangerous. Reeve's kept up the pressure until the second venue also canceled the group's performance. Thus was public safety upheld in the face of this threat of unregulated humor.

Perceived threats to good order are often glaring, while threats to our Constitution rights go unnoticed, at least in the eyes of our elected officials. After several years, and substantial taxpayer funded legal fees, spent, unsuccessfully, on trying to ban billboards in Cambridge, the City Council has scaled back to merely recording their objection to the content of the signs. They have also moved on and discovered other forms of free speech and press to abridge.

Citing the, "visual blight due to their varying shapes and colors," the Council tried to ban newspaper boxes. Turned back by the city's legal counsel who explained that such a ban would be illegal, Councilor Reeves was quite free in his speech, "That sucks!" So much for the quality of City Council debate.

If they couldn't ban the newspaper boxes, they would, in the name of public safety, regulate their placement. For instance, under the new law which takes effect next month, newspaper boxes are banned near public schools. We wouldn't want school children to start reading newspapers and perhaps begin to question the indoctrination they get in our excellent educational system. Or perhaps our city fathers (and mothers and non-traditional parental units) fear that close proximity of newspapers will be a constant reminder of the public schools' failure to teach the kids how to read even at the level of say the Boston Herald.

Does anyone really believe it is a coincidence that the newspaper that will be most harmed by the new regulations is the only explicitly political paper, the only one that consistently pokes fun are our elected officials?

The framers of our Constitution gave us the first Amendment, with its protections of free of speech and of the press, not as protection against evil rulers, but as a restraint on the good. No tyrant who seized power by force would feel constrained by a written constitution. But it is the well meaning who come to power democratically who must be always hedged in, lest they, unable to laugh at their own foibles, trample our rights in name of protecting us.


David Trumbull is Chairman of the Cambridge Republican City Committee.