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Uproar continues over Palin effigy

W. Hollywood display breaks no laws, say authorities, including the Secret Service.

October 29, 2008|Victoria Kim and Raja Abdulrahim | Kim and Abdulrahim are Times staff writers.

Chad Michael Morrisette thought it would be fun to throw a little politics into his Halloween decorating this year since the holiday comes only four days before the presidential election.

For weeks the life-size mannequin of Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin that hung from a noose around its neck in front of Morrisette's West Hollywood home caused little controversy.

But then a news report on the display this week sparked a national uproar, drawing the attention of the Secret Service, upsetting politicians, including one local official who called for a hate crime investigation.

It also prompted MSNBC television host Keith Olbermann on Monday to dub Morrisette "today's worst person in the world."

"This is not the spirit of Halloween, sir," Olbermann said. "It is the spirit of violence."

Offensive as it may be, the Palin doll -- outfitted with beehive wig, glasses and a vintage Neiman Marcus red coat dress -- appears to violate no law, said officials of the Secret Service, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and Los Angeles city Code Enforcement Division.

"The sheriff made this clear: This is a country that has freedom of speech, and we protect that right even when we think it's idiotic and stupid and in bad taste," said Steve Whitmore, spokesman for the Sheriff's Department.

"If it is nonviolent and doesn't cause any problems, then they have the right to do it."

Morrisette, a professional window display designer, and his partner, Mito Aviles, both 28, said they set up the Palin display at their house on North Orange Grove Avenue about three weeks ago.

It also includes a mock-up of presidential candidate John McCain sitting in a chimney surrounded by paper flames.

"If it's a political statement, it's that their politics is scary to us," Morrisette said of the McCain-Palin campaign. "This is our palette and this is our venue of expression."

At first, most of their neighbors either chuckled or applauded the display, Morrisette and Aviles said.

But since it has attracted more media attention, some residents have become concerned that the effigy has cast their community in a bad light, they said.

"We don't want to make enemies with anyone," Aviles said. "This isn't what it was supposed to be about."

Some neighbors expressed mixed feelings Tuesday about the Palin effigy.

"There are certain limits and that's too far," said Robert Feindt, manager of an apartment building across the street from Morrisette's house. "I won't vote for her [Palin], but it's tacky."

Vanessa Suwatipanich, who lives next door to Feindt, said she thought it was within her neighbors' rights to use Halloween to make a political statement.

"They're expressing their distaste in an artful expression," she said.

West Hollywood Mayor Jeffrey Prang, who issued a statement Monday urging Morrisette and Aviles to take down the display, said city officials have been inundated with angry calls for not forcibly removing the effigy.

"I think we need to try to be more respectful in this democracy that we all enjoy," Prang said.

At the county Board of Supervisors' meeting Tuesday, Supervisor Michael Antonovich directed county counsel to investigate whether the Palin effigy constitutes a hate crime.

"Why is that not considered a hate crime? If there was an African American hanging from a tree, would that not constitute a hate crime?" Antonovich said, adding that the county definition of hate crimes includes "political affiliation."

"If it was another presidential candidate hanging from a noose, or another ethnicity, let's say Asian, would that be considered art?" he said, denouncing the Palin display as "totally reprehensible" and "odious."

But Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition and a free-speech expert, said the same display with Obama also would probably fall under protected speech, as long as it was not made with the intent of inciting violence.

"Mere speech, no matter how hateful, in America is protected in most contexts, except in instances carved out to protect special audiences like children," he said. "The reason we do that is . . . so that we don't end up censoring valuable speech."

At a small Christian university in Newberg, Ore., last month, a life-size cardboard reproduction of Obama was hung from a tree on campus, an act that outraged students and school officials.

A custodian at George Fox University discovered the effigy suspended from the branch of a tree with fishing line around its neck and removed it.

The disturbing sight found near the heart of the campus recalled the days of lynchings of blacks and was all the more incongruous at a university founded by Quaker pioneers in 1891.

Local authorities at the time determined that the four students behind the display had violated no municipal or state laws, and did not file charges, said University spokesman Rob Felton.

The students were suspended for up to a year, he said.

A spokeswoman for the FBI in Oregon said her office was still investigating whether the civil rights of other students had been infringed by the effigy.

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victoria.kim@latimes.com

raja.abdulrahim@latimes.com

Times staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Times wire reports contributed to this story.

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