BY: B. Keith Plunkett @Keithplunkett
The publishers of The Onion have grown an incredible following of their website based on satire and parody of national news stories of the day. A similar political satire column appears in the New Yorker Magazine called The Borowitz Report. Parody has been a part of political commentary for centuries. But, if former Democrat candidate for governor and Mayor of Hattiesburg Johnny Dupree has his say, no such parodies are going to be written about him.
Dupree’s lawyer Charles E. Lawrence, Jr. sent a letter to Tom Garmon of Garmon Media, the company that publishes the website The Hattiesburg Patriot, telling him to pull a satirical parody from it’s Facebook page and issue a retraction or face legal action. Garmon has refused to give in to the mayor, siting First Amendment protections of free speech, and the legal precedent of rulings that allow for political satire. Satire is allowable if a reasonable person can understand that the statement is not real. Parody and satire are protected under the First Amendment as a “distorted imitation” of an original work for the purpose of commenting on it.
What is really at play in this case is an attempt by Mayor Dupree to push back against a publisher who has kept a close eye on his office and doesn’t shy away from reporting the “goings-on” at Hattiesburg City Hall. Dupree would also probably like to keep from the public the fact that he is one of two mayors in Mississippi on record in support of gun control measures, the subject of the post, in an election year.
The Hattiesburg Patriots Facebook post covers a few inconceivable and downright hilarious subjects in two short paragraphs: race, a public shooting, gun control, public safety, and the USM football team.
The post entices readers with a fake headline that spoofs the local newspaper’s inclusion of an April shooting at Cucos restaurant in it’s list of top stories from 2012,“CuCu’s COOCOO Scott Tyner Makes HA Story of the Year. Mayor announces 2013 gun ban.”
A Forrest County grand jury indicted Tyner in August on five counts of aggravated assault. No one was killed during the shooting.
The post reads:
“As a result of Scott Tyner making one of the stories of the year, Mayor Johnny Dupree issued a statement on New Years Eve day that he plans to propose a city wide gun ban beginning in early 2013. Dupree said, “We can’t have these crazy white folks walking around with guns. At least the African-American keeps it among themselves for the most part, but the white folks are a serious threat to the community at large.”
“Dupree plans to start confiscating guns with the USM football program. When asked about the gun ban, Councilman Dave Ware said, “We have to take a sensible approach to these issues. We need to arm everyone.”
The responding attorney letter, provided to Mississippi PEP by Garmon, called the post “an intentional malicious act designed to negatively affect the effectiveness of Mayor Dupree as Mayor of the City of Hattiesburg and is highly inflammatory”. The letter goes on to say that Mayor Dupree is considering “legal action” to address this “depraved act.”
Garmon describes the entire response from Dupree as “silly”.
“We have thousands of troops right down the road at Camp Shelby who are training to defend our constitutional rights, and my First Amendment right is being attacked right here in Hattiesburg by our own Mayor over something silly,” Garmon said in a phone interview. “And, to think he could have been our governor. The bottom line is the Mayor doesn’t want his gun control position being brought to light in an election year, so he is attacking the little guy.”
For the most part, commenters to the post got the joke and, to Dupree’s likely added annoyance, shared it online 162 times. As of Sunday January 13 the post also had 109 “Likes” and 198 comments. Despite the racial overtones, the comments also show the satirical piece hit home with a diverse audience that crossed racial boundaries. One white commenter said, “I like this article it brings in many colors.” An African-American woman commented “a little comic relief is good for the soul.” One African-American man wrote, “This story is so funny. The wording tells you it’s silly and can’t be true.”
While comic relief may be “good for the soul”, it can be less so for a political career, especially if their laughing at you and not with you. Dupree’s response is ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, silence ‘em’. That will only make this worse on the mayor, not better. It shows he has something to hide.
It’s the little bit of truth in every joke that makes them funny and that may be what scares Mayor Dupree the most. In light of his position on gun control and the opposing position of most conservative Hattiesburg voters, that may be the least funny part of all.
About Keith: Keith Plunkett has worked on communications issues with a range of public officials from aldermen to Congressmen, and a variety of businesses, governmental agencies and non-profits. He serves or has served as a board member of several non-profit, civic and political organizations. Contact him by going to HorizonMediaMarketing.com or follow him on Twitter @Keithplunkett