On May 9, 1754, The Pennsylvania Gazette printed what is believed to be the first American political cartoon. Lacking copyright protection, “Join, or Die” was reprinted in almost every newspaper in North America. It was designed by Benjamin Franklin and depicted the colonies as severed parts of a snake – referring to a popular superstition that a dead snake would come back to life if all its pieces were placed next to each other. The purpose of the cartoon was to rouse support for Franklin’s plan, introduced at the Albany Congress of 1754, for a united association of colonies that could deal with the treat of Indian attack and other common problems.
While the Albany Plan failed, Franklin’s cartoon established a lasting connection between an image and a specific political cause. The snake became an icon that thereafter represented the idea of colonial unity. In 1774, Paul Revere used the same snake design in the Massachusetts Spy, but this snake was fighting a British dragon. The image was used again during the Civil War, with one version for the Union and another for the Confederacy!
Currier and Ives also contributed to the Civil War dialog, in one instance portraying Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana as men on donkeys who were following South Carolina over a cliff toward sessession. Political cartoons continued to illustrate positions on both sides of significant issues, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s controversial New Deal. FDR was often the subject of political cartoonists. One presented a unique vision of Roosevelt’s Christmas wishes regarding the alphabet soup of New Deal programs, while another criticized the Supreme Court forblocking the implementation of those programs.
Sometimes, however, particular individuals have been held up for public ridicule in political cartoons in order to make a persuasive statement. One example is the cartoon depicting a shrewish Susan B. Anthony chasing President Grover Cleveland with an umbrella in order to further her demands for women’s sufferage. The infamous William M. “Boss” Tweed was another irresistible target. He was often the subject, together with his corrupt Tammany Hall cronies, of the political cartoons drawn by Thomas Nast which frequently appeared in the pages of Harper’s Weekly. Some politicians, such as Pennsylvania Governor Samuel Pennypacker in 1903, have actually tried to pass anti-cartoon laws – with little success.
As amusing and politically effective as such cartoons may be, they can also be viewed as offensive by those targeted. Naturally, this leads to litigation. A detailed discussion of the legal issues involved can be found in Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988).
The conflict arose in 1983, when Hustler Magaizine, a publication intended for adults, published a parody (not a cartoon) of a Campari Liqueur ad. The original ads featured celebrity interviews about the “first time” they drank Campari. The parody had a similar layout, however it featured a fictitious interview with Jerry Falwell, a well-known conservative evangelist, in which he discussed his “first time” with his mother in an outhouse. Falwell brought suit against the magazine and its publisher, Larry Flint, alleging libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Although the case was actually about parody, Justice William Rehnquist devoted much of the majority opinion to a review of the law regarding all forms of political comment, satire and parody. He stated that “[a]t the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern.” Strong words considering the number of times the court itself has been the subject of political cartoons. Furthermore:
The sort of robust political debate encouraged by the First Amendment is bound to produce speech that is critical of those who hold public office or those public figures who are “intimately involved in the resolution of important public questions or, by reason of their fame, shape events in areas of concern to society at large.
Following New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U. S. 254 (1964), public officials and public figures may only recover damages resulting from a defamatory statement if the statement was made with “actual malice,” meaning that it was made “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”
The Court also extended the actual malice standard to statements made with the intent to inflict emotional distress. Rehnquist acknowledged:
The appeal of the political cartoon or caricature is often based on exploitation of unfortunate physical traits or politically embarrassing events — an exploitation often calculated to injure the feelings of the subject of the portrayal. The art of the cartoonist is often not reasoned or evenhanded, but slashing and one-sided., noting that “in the world of debate about public affairs, many things done with motives that are less than admirable are protected by the First Amendment.
However, Rehnquist vigorously defended political speech because “[w]ere we to hold otherwise, there can be little doubt that political cartoonists and satirists would be subjected to damages awards without any showing that their work falsely defamed its subject.”