Is Parody a Felony? Latest Twist in Fight Over GOP Suppression of Wisconsin Labor Art Show

“Parody is one of the few weapons that labor people are still allowed to use,” Madison-based labor cartoonist Mike Konopacki recently told me. But members of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s administration, most noted for its destruction of meaningful public-employee union rights, are not amused.

For example, Republicans were outraged when Buffalo Beast blogger Ian Murphy convinced Walker that he was billionaire donor David Koch during a now-infamous and momentous hoax phone call Feb. 22, 2011, as pro-labor protests were building in size at the State Capitol. A few weeks later, GOP legislators in Wisconsin proposed a bill that would criminalize prank callers like Murphy. (The lawmakers claimed the legislation wasn’t in response to his phone call, and the bill had been introduced in the previous legislative session.)

This time around, the prankster under Republican fire is Konopacki, who believes that the satirical pen is mightier than the National Guard bayonets Walker once threatened to summon to ward off protests. Konopacki satirized a Republican legislator who used the threat of a funding cut-off to block an arts festival displaying the posters, signs, banners and other art created in response to Walker’s anti-collective bargaining legislation.

Konopacki is well-known for his powerful illustration of Howard Zinn and Paul Buhle’s People’s History of the American Empire, his razor-sharp, witty cartoons on workers’ issues carried by numerous labor publications, and political cartoons in the Madison Capital Times during the last 25 years. He also teaches an online class at the University of Illinois’ Labor Education program.

Konopacki and other artists were deeply offended when Republican State Rep. Steve Nass leaned on the University of Wisconsin School for Workers—the nation’s longest standing labor education program—to cancel an art exhibition displaying the enormous outpouring of creativity unleashed in artwork, signs, posters and banners by last year’s labor rebellion. With the School for Workers funding always vulnerable to being wiped out by the Republicans, the school saw no alternative but to cancel the exhibition.

Kathy Wilkes, a former spokeswoman for the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Workers Union, recounted on her blog how Nass and his staff applied the pressure:

Representative Steve Nass, who has been a longtime thorn in the university’s side, was unhappy about the exhibit, and his chief of staff, Mike Mikalsen, gave an earful to the director of the School for Workers last week, suggesting that the exhibit could imperil the school’s funding.

As Nass’ chief of staff Mike Mikalsen himself explained to The Capital Times:

It’s an arts festival designed to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the Wisconsin uprising. Well, maybe here in Madison that’s a great thing. But there are lots of Republicans and conservatives around the state who are still very angry about that whole thing. We just suggested that now, with all the tensions that still exist, this may not be the appropriate time for this arts festival.

After the official exhibit was cancelled (it was eventually re-scheduled at an off-campus community center last weekend), Konopacki decided it was time to draw on his ample satirical skills.

“This was an outrage,” Konopacki declared. “The creativity of the people of Wisconsin inspired an exhibit at the nation’s historical museum in Washington, D.C., yet Nass decided that it’s not suitable for the School for Workers. … Wisconsin survived the Joe McCarthy era, but we might not get through the Scott Walker era.”

So on February 25, Konopacki unleashed a mock “news release” on letterhead he designed to appear like Nass’. In the parody (available here), “Nass” boasted of his success in blocking the School for Workers’ exhibition: “We have successfully prevented the display of protest art at the University of Wisconsin Extension in Madison.”

“Nass” then went on to demand that the Smithsonian also take down its exhibit: “Since we prevented it from being displayed in Madison, it shouldn’t be supported by federal tax dollars either.”

The “release” also includes mock quotes from Wisconsin ultra-conservatives like Sen. Ron Johnson and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan expressing anger that the national Smithsonian Institution was staging the exhibit.

But the fury of the satirical “Nass” was nothing next to the rage of the real Steve Nass. Nass filed a complaint with the Madison police, asking that they seek charges against Konopacki. According to Wilkes, who interviewed District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, the applicable charge would be a Class One felony under Wis. Statute 949.49(2)(a), which prohibits “Falsely assuming to act as a public officer or employee or a utility employee.”

Konopacki remains unfazed by the prospect of any charges hanging over him, and in fact looks forward to any fight over the right to free expression. “This is a fight I’d love to have. We have all kinds of laws and legal rulings protecting parody and satire on our side.”

Once the word got out about the potential charges against Konopacki, he started receiving calls of support from unions (including the Amalgamated Transit Union) eager to join his defense. Konopacki also got a reassuring call from Madison labor attorney Ed Garvey, who told him, “If you need a lawyer, you’ve got one.”