You Cant Fix Stupid, But Youd Better Try to Fix Incompetent
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of U.S. Constitution-violating
local laws and ordinances around the country, most of them ignored, unenforced,
or too trivial to worry about. But every now and then some descendant
of Patrick Henry or William O. Douglas decides enough is enough, violates
the law, and then we can observe the willful abuse of power in action.
This drama is now playing out in Clearwater, Florida, where the city government passed a silly and inept ordinance making it illegal to have a mural over your own store that depicts what you sold inside. The purpose, they claim, is to improve the look of local streets. Of course, murals are art, and you can’t ban art. But when a bait shop owner put up a large, painted mural depicting fish over his Clearwater shop, he was hit with a 600 dollar citation. That did it. On the day that was his deadline to remove the mural, Herb Quintero, owner of the Complete Angler at 705 N Fort Harrison Ave., covered it up with a banner displaying the text of the First Amendment. Clearwater authorities are fining him for every day the Constitution-draped mural remains up.
This is a dumb law, written by dumb officials, and it is true, as comedian Ron White says, that you can’t fix stupid. But those who are entrusted with power in a democracy have an ethical obligation to keep their ignorance and stupidity from harming others, another to wield their power responsibly, fairly, and reasonably, and yet another to be minimally competent. Walking into a hopeless Constitutional fight over a fish mural meets none of these obligations. The ACLU is joining Quintero’s crusade. This is going to cast Clearwater taxpayers money, and make the city look ridiculous.
Jeff Kronschnabl, Clearwater’s director of development and neighborhood services, argues the city has no choice but to enforce its codes consistently, without making exceptions. If not, he said, “a lingerie store or adult entertainment business” could display a large mural “depicting its products.” (The Scoreboard apologizes to Mr. Kronschnabl provisionally, if he is merely mouthing the best party line possible, and doing his best to defend an ordinance he too may think is indefensible. But if so, some candor would be admirable. Come to think of it, I withdraw that apology.) Is there a law student or a reasonably quick high school junior who couldn’t figure out a narrower, less restrictive law that would prevent the potential horror that Kronschnabl cites?
The ordinance, as it stands, doesn’t even make sense. Local papers have pointed out that Quintero’s First Amendment banner isn’t in violation of this strictly-interpreted law, because the bait store doesn’t sell Amendments. That means, does it not, that his bait store could put up pictures of women in sexy lingerie, or dildos sold at the adult entertainment store. And the lingerie store could put up a fish mural, right?
Wait a minute…the bait store doesn’t even sell fish! Explain that law to me again, Jeff!
As Richard Dreyfus says in the great fish movie, “Jaws,” “This is what happens.” Yes, this what happens when people accept jobs in governance for which they are shockingly unprepared and unqualified, and don’t have the responsibility, humility, or sense of civic duty to seek out the necessary knowledge, perspective and expertise they lack. This is what happens: rights violations, harassed businesses, wasted time and expense, and humiliation. We will leave reflections on FEMA, the Justice Department, the Defense Department, Treasury, the SEC, the EPA, FEMA, Transportation, and other aspects of the Bush administration to others. But this isn’t just about fish murals.
No, you can’t fix stupid, but if you’re elected to public office, you have a duty to try to minimize its consequences.