A little guy armed with the first Amendment
You may already know the first part of the story: Ken Bernacky, the owner of Stereo Surgeons on Main Street in East Hartford, used to have a sign in his shop window that said, "GENO IS GOD." It referred, we assume, to the powers of Geno Auriemma - the UConn women's basketball coach.
Ken likes the UConn women, as do most of his customers.
He puts the sign up every year and every year people laugh or give him the thumbs-up. A few also grumble, which is their right. They find the sign blasphemous. That never bothered Bernacky, who figured they were entitled to their opinion, just as he is.
But not everyone is as enlightened as Ken Bernacky.
The town of East Hartford, under the direction of the mayor, forced Bernacky to take down his sign.
An inspector from the town's Inspections and Permits Department ordered Bernacky to remove the sign on the grounds that it was a temporary sign to commemorate a specific event. (Huh?) If he refused, Bernacky would have to pay a fine of $25 a day.
The mayor himself was behind this. It was his deal. He came to the shop. He explained that some people took umbrage with the sign and he needed Bernacky to take it down as a favor to him. When Bernacky refused, the mayor said, "I'm gonna send one of my men over." And when that guy (the inspector) arrived, he told Bernacky, "I guess some people are offended." When Bernacky pointed out that he also had an American flag in the window, and asked if he would have to remove it too, the answer was: "No one is offended by that."
Bernacky calls the mayor and his men "constitutional thugs," which seems pretty apt.
The sign was in Bernacky's own window, mind you, on his property.
What happened here?
Well, some people took offense-the new national pastime- and the mayor wanted to calm them down. So he decided to censor the offender.
Classic bullying of a little guy by those with the power.
Yeah, but this time they picked on the wrong little guy.
Bernacky knew his rights.
Unlike the mayor, he had read the Constitution.
Guess what he put in the window instead of "GENO IS GOD."?
A copy of the First Amendment.
Bernacky also acquired a bunch of new friends, due to national publicity, and the Internet.
He heard from Alan Dershowitz and Gerry Spence, two very famous lawyers. And he heard from a woman in Seattle, who has never met Bernacky or been to East Hartford, but who, on reading of his plight online, hooked him up with the American Civil Liberties Union. The Connecticut chapter took on his case.
And now the town has caved.
East Hartford has rescinded its cease-and desist order and dubbed its humiliating defeat "a compromise." Score one for the Constitution and the CCLU.
But is anyone else troubled by a mayor and town officials who thought they had the right to tell a guy to take down a sign in his own shop window because it offended people? Did no one at Town Hall say: "You can't do that!"? Does no one at Town Hall feel free to do that?
Let us now praise Constitution freaks from Seattle. And Ken Bernacky.
The Episcopal church across the street from Stereo Surgeons-St. John's-took much of the heat for bringing the heat on Bernacky. But members of the mayor's own church, St. Isaac Jogues, may have been the ones who really got to Larson. He may have had too many peaceful Sunday mornings ruined by carpers, and he may have wanted that to end.
It doesn't matter.
What was the mayor thinking? He should have answered: "Ever hear of the First Amendment?"
Turns out someone needed to say that to him.
Offended neighbors are one thing, but a bullying town administration that doesn't seem to have heard of the Bill of Rights? That's unacceptable.
And speaking of being offended: How come the mayor and those so concerned with community sensibilities and norms of decency here did not protest the visit of O.J. Simpson to East Hartford? That offended a great many people, was grossly indecent, and demeaned the town. The mayor thought that display on Main Street was perfectly OK.
Bernacky called it: "Everybody has a right to be offended. Nobody has the right to shut someone else down."
Four constitutional principles were actually violated here: Free speech (covered in the First Amendment); separation of church and state (also implied by the First) because religious sensibilities were dictating public policy in East Hartford; property rights; and due process of law (both in Amendment No. 5).
Bernacky says the only thing that put him, the little guy, on a par with town officials was the media.
But suppose they had picked on a little guy with less fight in him, or one with no idea of how to gain access to the press?
And by the way, not that it changes the right to post it, but is the sign blasphemous? Not to most people. Maybe not even to most religious people.
Perhaps only those with no sense of humor or not enough to do are offended. One day a nun, in full habit, walked into Stereo Surgeons and pounded her fist on the counter. "God loves humor," she said.
It is a dangerous thing to presume to know the mind of God. But maybe He loves women's basketball and free thought too.