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Political trick-or-treat

It's not a crime. But hanging Sarah Palin in effigy for Halloween is misguided and needlessly divisive.

October 30, 2008

Is it OK to hang an effigy of Sarah Palin from a noose, as a West Hollywood couple has recently become infamous for doing, but not an effigy of Barack Obama?

Some conservatives, including county Supervisor Michael Antonovich, see a double standard at play. Antonovich has ordered county counsel to investigate whether the misguided Halloween display at a house on North Orange Grove Avenue is a hate crime. "If there was an African American hanging from a tree, would that not constitute a hate crime?" he asked.

Antonovich is not the only one angry at ChadMichael Morrisette and partner Mito Aviles, who decorated their home with a figure representing Palin hanging from a roof beam and a figure of John McCain surrounded by fake flames on the chimney. Keith Olbermann displayed a photo of Morrisette during his MSNBC show Monday night and named him that day's "worst person in the world." Right-wing bloggers pointed out the hypocrisy of liberals who condone violent imagery against Republicans while decrying Republican attacks on Obama.

Everybody take a deep breath. Some critics of the display seem unclear on a couple of concepts: the difference between political speech and hate speech, and the symbolic resonance that nooses hold for African Americans.

It is undeniably true that if a figure of Obama had been depicted hanging from a noose, it would have attracted more outrage than the image of Palin. That's because of a horrifying history of lynchings of black men in the American South, a history that makes the noose as offensive among blacks as the swastika is for Jews. It's also true that as long as it was clear that the hanging figure represented Obama or another prominent black politician rather than a private citizen, it wouldn't be legally actionable as a hate crime. Our laws give broad latitude to clear expressions of political opinion, as opposed to incitements to violence against ethnic groups. So while conservatives are right to suppose that such an offensive depiction of Obama would attract enormous anger, they're wrong to think it would be treated differently under the law.

That said, the West Hollywood display falls under the axiom, "Just because you can, doesn't mean you should." There are some forms of expression that poison our political discourse and needlessly deepen our divisions. They include inflammatory and untrue statements, such as the McCain campaign's assertions that Obama is a socialist or that he "pals around with terrorists," and depictions of violent acts against politicians, such as hanging them in effigy. Morrisette and Aviles could do their neighborhood, Los Angeles and the country a favor by replacing their Halloween horror show with an early Christmas display; an inflatable Santa would be nice.

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