State Representative Demands University Stop Selling Candy Satirizing President Obama
August 4, 2011
by Ari Cohn
Today's episode of "ridiculous things people get worked up over" comes to us from Tennessee, where the University of Tennessee-Knoxville (UTK) bookstore has been browbeat into pulling a line of breathmints poking fun at President Obama called "Disappointmints." Democratic State Representative Joe Armstrong was offended by the candy—he told reporters that he believed it was "defaming the president"—and told the bookstore's director that the mints were inappropriate merchandise for the bookstore to be selling because they targeted a particular government official. (It's worth noting that the bookstore sold similar mints directed at former President George W. Bush during his tenure.)
It's hard to decide where to begin, but I'll start with defamation. Defamation requires a false statement of fact. Here we have what is clearly an opinion, and an opinion about a political figure, no less, thus subject to the most stringent of defamation standards. Nowhere in the United States could this come even close to constituting defamation. Second, while certain regulations do prohibit universities from taking an official political stance as an institution—you can learn more about them in FIRE's Statement on Political Activity on Campus—the sale of candy in a university bookstore is very, very unlikely to run afoul of them. Finally, as UTK constitutional law professor Glenn Reynolds pointed out, "there is no candy exception to the First Amendment."
UTK is one of the few schools to receive FIRE's green-light rating, indicating favorable conditions for free speech. As such, while we're disappointed to see confusion about exceptions to the First Amendment result in a crackdown on a harmless novelty product, FIRE remains confident that politicians offended by speech that doesn't correspond with their political interests don't pose much of a threat to freedom of speech at UTK.