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The Message

Nathan Thrailkill's cartoon put Fort Collins's mayor in an uncomfortable position.
Courtesy of Rocky Mountain Bullhorn

The images that recently upset Fort Collins Mayor Ray Martinez and University of Northern Colorado professor Junius Peake aren't exactly sophisticated. A sketch of Martinez rendered by cartoonist Nathan Thrailkill and first published December 11 in the Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, a Fort Collins weekly, is simple and rough-edged, while a doctored snapshot of Peake that debuted last year in an underground publication christened the Howling Pig required only rudimentary computer knowledge. Yet the fallout from these facsimiles has been considerable. Thrailkill's doodle prompted Martinez to excoriate the Bullhorn in ways that representatives of the newspaper view as veiled threats against their constitutional rights. As for Peake's gripes, they led to a criminal investigation focusing on Pig founder Tom Mink and a court challenge spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union that's earned headlines across the country.

The maxim about a picture being worth only a thousand words is clearly several generations out of date.

The Bullhorn controversy arose late last year as Fort Collins was grappling with numerous racial issues. On November 20, staffer Bethany Kohoutek (Thrailkill's significant other) wrote about the Human Rights Protection Ordinance, a notion pushed by a group called the Human Rights Protection Coalition that "would prevent Fort Collins officials from inquiring as to an individual's immigration status." Coalition members argued that the measure's passage was made more urgent by a proposed piece of federal legislation, the Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Removal Act of 2003. Co-sponsored by Colorado representatives Tom Tancredo and Marilyn Musgrave, the CLEAR Act would let local police officers "investigate, apprehend, detain or remove aliens" -- duties currently reserved for U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Against this backdrop, two members of Fort Collins's Human Relations Commission, Ken Gordon and Mary Gomez, resigned their posts, with Gordon telling the Bullhorn he planned to leave Colorado in part because city officials weren't doing enough to combat bigotry.

Gordon and Gomez subsequently withdrew their resignations, but before they did so, Martinez urged them not to quit at a December 16 meeting of the Fort Collins City Council. He then ripped into the Thrailkill cartoon, which depicted him being searched by a cop who, upon being told of the mayor's identity, responds, "Yeah, and I'm the Pope. Under the CLEAR Act, without your papers, you're an illegal immigrant who was just caught speeding." Martinez told those present that he thought the cartoon was "very discriminatory.... That's the very image that I think this community is trying to avoid. And then we have the media, the Bullhorn, portraying that kind of cartoon. Shame on the Bullhorn. That's my opinion. Shame, shame, shame, shame, shame on the Bullhorn."

Martinez elaborated on this theme two days later in a letter to Bullhorn publisher Joseph Rouse. In the missive, which the Bullhorn printed in its January 8 edition, Martinez wrote that "not only did the characterization in the cartoon falsely stereotype me, it stereotyped my culture and portrayed a misleading statement that the CLEAR Act mandates the police to conduct a 'stop and search' of Hispanics."

For Thrailkill, whose Martinez illustration was one of his first forays into political cartooning, the mayor's vitriol came as a surprise. "I was shocked about how irrational his response was," he says, "and I don't know where he got the impression that it was racist." After all, Thrailkill intended the cartoon to argue against the profiling of Hispanics, which he sees as a potential danger of the CLEAR Act, even as it lampooned Martinez, a conservative politician with apparent aspirations to higher office; he nearly ran for the congressional seat won by Musgrave and was just appointed to an advisory board by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Besides, the drawing had been approved by Bullhorn editor Vanessa Martinez, who, though not related to the mayor, was certainly sensitive to racial issues, having devoted many column inches to exposés of discrimination since she and Rouse co-founded the paper in 2000. Editor Martinez confirms that she saw nothing wrong with the cartoon. "If I truly felt it was racist, we would have thought long and hard about putting it in the paper," she says.

Supporters of the Human Rights Protection Ordinance evidently weren't bothered by Thrailkill's take. Rouse was invited to a Christmas party thrown by one such group, and when he arrived at the bash's locale, he was pleased to see an oversized copy of the cartoon affixed to the front door. "The minority community's very aware of where we stand," he says.

Hence, he and editor Martinez fear that the mayor's real goal was to quell dissent. They point to another section of his letter to the publisher, in which he argued that the First Amendment "is not intended to insult, belittle or stereotype people under the guise of Œfreedom of speech.' Doing so creates an atmosphere of discord and prejudice in this day and age."  

With these words, editor Martinez says, the mayor is "trying to send a message out to other local media that criticism will not be taken well by him." Adds Rouse, "It's bullying, a sort of default censorship." To emphasize his understanding that the First Amendment protects speech whether it's kind and polite or not, Rouse had a telling quote from Joseph Pulitzer embossed on his business cards: "Newspapers should have no friends."

Mayor Martinez certainly isn't a pal of the Bullhorn's, at least for the moment. He scoffs at the insinuation that his letter was an attempt at prior restraint, or that his interpretation of the Constitution is limiting. "I probably understand freedom of speech and First Amendment rights just as well, if not better, than they do," he says. "They're a young paper, with some inexperienced writers, maybe. But thank goodness we have the freedom to express different views." At the same time, he isn't backing away from his contention that Thrailkill's illustration was unnecessarily inflammatory. "I think it heeds them to be considerate and try and put out a balanced report," he allows, noting that the cartoon "wasn't trying to build bridges."

Not that Martinez is going out of his way to do so. When asked if he'll return calls from Bullhorn reporters in the future, he replies in a chilly tone that he'll weigh requests on a case-by-case basis.

Consider yourself warned, Bullhorn scribes.

The Howling Pig's Tom Mink is on notice as well, notwithstanding a victory in court. On January 9, Denver U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock issued a temporary restraining order halting investigation of alleged criminal libel by Mink relating to the first three issues of his newsletter, a collection of scattershot satire and barbed commentary aimed at UNC. However, he had a fourth edition ready to go, and he wanted to be sure that it wouldn't get him into further trouble -- so he had it vetted by a hastily assembled "editorial board" that included ACLU lawyers. In the end, the committee approved an assemblage that needles the Monfort meatpacking family and features a rant against carbohydrates by the Howling Pig's "editor," one "Junius Puke."

On the Pig's home page, viewable at www.geocities.com/thehowlingpig, a disclaimer differentiates Puke, who's seen wearing Gene Simmons makeup, from Peake, the 72-year-old Monfort Distinguished Professor of Finance at UNC's Monfort College of Business, and a nationally recognized expert on microstructure; he's appeared on National Public Radio and other major news organs. Nonetheless, a second picture of Puke that, like the first, is a doctored rendering of a Peake glossy, shows him sporting a tiny mustache that the professor interpreted as a nod to Adolf Hitler when he saw a copy of the Pig at UNC last fall. "How would you like it if someone sent out a newsletter likening you to Hitler?" he asks. "I lived through the Hitler era. I had friends who died then. To me, that was the worst thing."

This complaint blindsides Mink, who's never spoken to Peake despite having attended UNC since 1998; although he's close to meeting graduation requirements, he decided to take the current semester off. "I wasn't trying to make any World War II references," Mink says. "The mustache is there because of my poor Photoshop skills. The guy has a full beard and mustache, and when we were taking them out, there was one little spot under the nose that looked really bizarre, so we blacked it out. We thought it made him look like Oliver Hardy. I guess if we could have put a hat on him and a skinny guy next to him, it would have defused all the problems."

Maybe not. Peake was upset by the totality of his portrayal in the Pig and frustrated that the newsletter was presented anonymously; Mink says he leaves names out to protect contributors from potential university retribution. For that reason, Peake contacted the Weld County District Attorney's Office, not the police, as the Denver Post and other outlets have inaccurately reported. Peake says DA representatives then brought in the cops under Colorado's criminal-libel statute, a law declaring that published statements "tending to blacken the memory of one who is dead, or to impeach the honesty, integrity, virtue, or reputation or expose the natural defects of one who is alive" may be considered a felony. Conviction carries a possible two years in the pokey and a $100,000 fine.

After tracing the Pig to Mink, authorities in early December went to the home in Ault that he shares with his mother and seized their computer. Unfortunately, this action took place on the last day of finals, before Mink could e-mail two papers that were due. "I ended up not getting the best grades in those classes," Mink says.  

The marks he received from Judge Babcock, who became involved after the ACLU filed suit to stop Weld County from going after Mink, were decidedly mixed. He said the Pig didn't stack up to the satirical writing in a sixteenth-century pamphlet by acclaimed theologian Desiderius Erasmus -- and after picking up some Erasmus following Babcock's ruling, Mink agrees. Nonetheless, Babcock determined that the Pig was still protected by the First Amendment and implied strongly that any attempt to prosecute Mink under the criminal-libel statute was doomed.

That's good news for Mink but perhaps less exciting for the ACLU, since cooperating attorney Marcy Glenn says lawyers felt the Pig case might lead to the criminal-libel statute being deemed unconstitutional. If the DA's office takes Babcock's hint and decides not to prosecute Mink, the judge may not allow the suit to move forward, and the law could linger indefinitely. Editorialists at the Post and the Rocky Mountain News won't be pleased by that, since in recent weeks, both papers argued that the statute be trashed.

Peake, who doesn't consider himself to be a public figure despite his media profile, feels these broadsides and others made him seem like the bad guy, whereas "I think I'm the victim." He says being targeted by Mink made him feel "sad and angry," and he describes the coverage of the incident, which received attention from publications such as USA Today and Rolling Stone, as "an example of the way most of the media today deals with any issue that impacts someone who is a conservative." Moreover, he believes the criminal-libel statute has a place on the books, given how difficult it is to win a civil judgment in such matters. "There ought to be some way for people who are libeled this severely to get some satisfaction without spending their life's fortune and five years going through with a lawsuit to get practically nothing," he maintains. Without legislation, he adds, "you can say anything about anybody without any fear of consequences as a practical matter."

The ACLU's Glenn counters that libel prosecutions should be challenging, because if they weren't, "we'd be frightening people from speaking. So for him to say 'It's hard to bring a civil suit, therefore I ought to be able to institute a criminal action' seems ludicrous to me. Maybe he should pull out his copy of the Constitution and give it a good read."

That's not a bad idea for all of us.

9 wants to know: Channel 9 anchor/reporter Andrew Resnik is hardly the first person from his station to get in trouble with the law. Recall that fellow anchor/reporter Mark Koebrich was cited for disturbing the peace and minor assault in August 2001 for allegedly punching a Channel 9 technical engineer in the face at Invesco Field. Resnik, in contrast, was busted for buying three Ecstasy pills outside a November 16 Phil Lesh concert at the Fillmore Auditorium

Even though this transgression will probably strike many readers of this publication as far less serious than handing out a knuckle facial, Resnik was dealt with rather harshly by his employer after pleading guilty to one count of possessing a controlled substance and receiving a deferred sentence on January 6. (If he stays out of trouble for eighteen months, his record will be cleared -- and he has no prior criminal history.) Channel 9 president and general manager Roger Ogden suspended Resnik without pay for nearly two months, and when Resnik returned on January 12, he did so as a general-assignment reporter, having been stripped of weekend anchoring duties. Resnik is reticent to call this a demotion, not wanting to insult any of his reporting colleagues, but Ogden has no such qualms. "It's definitely a demotion," he says.

Ogden reveals that the feedback he's received from viewers about keeping Resnik has been mixed: "Some folks thanked us for giving him another chance; others were fairly critical of our decision. But as I told both groups, all you can do is look at the individual, the facts, the history, the background and make a decision. It might have been better from a strictly business standpoint to let him go, but that's not how I approach things. We try to be fair -- and I think people who make mistakes and admit it deserve another chance in some cases." Regarding the disparity between the treatment of Resnik and Koebrich, Ogden says, "There were some consequences for Mark, but it was a different situation. This charge was more serious. Mark's thing was a misdemeanor involving a couple of folks who lost their temper for a moment."  

Resnik isn't complaining. He wrote Channel 9 staffers a lengthy e-mail calling his misbehavior "a terrible mistake, bringing shame and frustration not only to myself and my family, but also to my extended family at 9News. I am aware of the feelings of shock, disappointment and anger that many of you have gone through as you heard this news. We all take pride in the station we represent...and my absurd actions undermined that pride." In a separate interview, Resnik underlined these points even as he heaped compliments upon Ogden for keeping him on the payroll. "I'm just really grateful to be back, and I think the powers that be showed a great deal of mercy and compassion," he says.

Talk about a difference in cultures. Around here, the worst someone could probably expect after an Ecstasy arrest at a Phil Lesh show would be ridicule for being cliched.


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