In Defense of Kathy Griffin, Unspeakable Acts Against Presidential Effigies, and Free Speech

color photo of comedian Kathy Griffin onstage, delivering a middle-finger salute to an unseen audience
Kathy Griffin expressing herself in Indiana in 2014 (Larry Philpot/songbirdgallery.com via Wikimedia Commons)
Kathy Griffin exercised her First Amendment right to brandish Donald Trump's faux fat severed head -- and lived to tell Bill Maher the tale

Comedian Kathy Griffin appeared this past Friday on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, unrepentant and unbowed. When the host asked what she’d do differently regarding the infamous pic of her posing with a gory replica of President Donald Trump’s disembodied head, she didn’t miss a beat.

“I’d do Mike Pence,” she cracked, to laughter and some groans from the audience. “No, I’m kidding. I’m kidding! Ten months I’ve waited to do that joke. Ten months!”

Griffin is known for her outrageous stunts — telling Jesus to “suck it” during a 2007 Emmy Award-acceptance speech, kissing Anderson Cooper’s crotch on live TV during CNN’s 2012 New Year’s Eve special. But the comedian, now 57, seemed to jump her own shark in a May 2017 photo shoot with bad-boy celebrity photographer Tyler Shields, for which she donned a Lewinsky-blue dress complete with “pussy bow” and proceeded to hoist her gruesome trophy.

TMZ.com was the first to publish one of the photos along with a short video that showed Griffin posing for the shots, then exchanging a modest high-five with Shields while they reviewed the results. (Griffin joked that that the two of them had better make plans to hightail it to Mexico, lest they wind up in the federal pen.)

Shortly thereafter, Griffin tweeted out the video herself, accompanied by a reference to Trump’s sexist dig at then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly: “I caption this ‘there was blood coming out of his eyes, blood coming out of his…wherever.”

Added Griffin: “OBVIOUSLY, I do not condone ANY violence by my fans of others to anyone, ever! I’m merely mocking the Mocker in Chief.”

Not surprisingly, the president tweeted back: “Kathy Griffin should be ashamed of herself. My children, especially my 11 year old son, Barron, are having a hard time with this. Sick!” Melania and Don Jr. piled on with their own Twitter tsk-tsks, as did a bipartisan cross-section of the social-media universe, from Chelsea Clinton to Piers Morgan to Keith Olbermann and Griffin’s ex-CNN screenmate Anderson Cooper, who tweeted that he was “appalled” by the image.

Griffin’s video mea culpa notwithstanding, CNN ended her decade-long run as Cooper’s bawdy New Year’s Eve sidekick.  She lost an endorsement deal for the bowel-easing Squatty Potty step stool. Venues across the nation canceled her appearances. And a long, weepy (and intermittently funny) press conference with attorney Lisa Bloom by her side backfired, as critics panned her complaint that Trump was “personally trying to ruin my life forever.”

More seriously, the U.S. Secret Service opened an investigation into the “threat,” even as Griffin herself received actual death threats, sometimes phoned in to places where she’d been booked.

The latter she described with some comedic license during her televised tête-à-tête with Maher.

“TMZ was reporting my show cancellations in real time, which scared, I think, the theaters,” she recounted. “So these theaters, which I don’t blame, all of sudden — you know, normally they do like Stomp or Mamma Mia! — and all of sudden they’re getting robocalls from, like, a bot farm in Macedonia, going, ‘If I see that bitch on stage, I’m going to cut her in the cunt, chop her head off, and put her head up her cunt.'”

When Maher asked about the Secret Service investigation, she said the Department of Justice had been involved as well. She added that her First Amendment attorney warned her before she sat down with federal agents that if things didn’t go well, she might leave the interview in handcuffs.

“I was determined to not do a perp walk,” she said. “So it cost me a lot of money, of course, but at least we were able to negotiate the interrogation happening in my attorney’s office. But just being told you could leave in cuffs. And it came straight from the DOJ and the White House. That’s the administration that we have now.”

Griffin said the investigation went on for two months. She said she’d recently returned from an international tour of 23 cities in 15 countries, and that she had been “detained at every single airport” along the way. Interpol, she claimed, has her on some sort of watch list.

“In all seriousness, there were times when they took my [electronic] devices,” Griffin said. “You might think, you know, we all have our rights, but when you’re in that moment, you’re really at the mercy of one or two people in that room. So, it happened at LAX, it happened once in Heathrow, and it’s scary every time, because you don’t quite know what it is.”

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Maher, who has caught plenty of flak for his own eyebrow-raising jokes and/or statements, commiserated. He referred to the photo shoot as a “very bad selfie” and bemoaned the pearl-clutching of the “United States of Babies” for overreacting.

Though it may seem absurd that federal law-enforcement officials wasted time on Griffin’s shenanigans, the Secret Service is famous for taking everything seriously. The agency had a chat with rock geezer Ted Nugent after the Motor City Madman told an audience at an NRA convention in 2012, “If Barack Obama becomes the president in November, I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year.”

Then again, while public outrage compelled Nugent to offer a tepid apology for referring to Obama as a “subhuman mongrel” in 2014, the Nuge never did a stint as persona non grata. In fact, in April 2017, Nugent, Sarah Palin, and Kid Rock toured the White House together and hung out with the president.

In the cases of Griffin, Nugent, and countless others, commentators have pointed out that the First Amendment covers such violent expressions directed at the commander in chief. As a matter of fact, the United States has a long history of hanging or burning effigies of its chief executives.

In 1841, an angry crowd burned President John Tyler in effigy right in front of the White House and even lobbed stones at the edifice and fired guns in the air. In the run-up to the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was hung and burned in effigy in various states throughout the South.  Suffragists demanding the right to vote torched a dummy made up to look like President Woodrow Wilson in 1919.

Such activity has persisted up to the present day. Foreshadowing Griffin’s head stunt, the makers of HBO’s Game of Thrones impaled a prosthetic replica of George W. Bush’s bean on a pike — a fact the show’s creators revealed in a commentary segment for a DVD of the series. One of the co-founders of Ben & Jerry’s sponsored a nationwide “Pants on Fire Tour,” featuring an effigy of W. farting faux flames. And racists had a field day after the U.S. elected its first African-American president, using cutout images of Obama for target practice and lynching him in effigy over and over again during his tenure.

Giant Trump dolls have already been hanged in effigy and torched. (Worldwide, there isn’t much that hasn’t been done to Trump’s likeness.)

There is a federal statute that proscribes threats against the president, making it a crime punishable by five years in prison to “knowingly and willfully” threaten “to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon” the president, the vice president, or any of the other officers in the order of succession.

But the Supreme Court has ruled that the offense must involve a “true threat,” leaving open a wide array of expression, including political hyperbole such as, you know, carrying around bloody likeness of Trump’s head.

In a signature 1969 case, Watts v. United States, the high court noted, “[A] statute such as this one, which makes criminal a form of pure speech, must be interpreted with the commands of the First Amendment clearly in mind. What is a threat must be distinguished from what is constitutionally protected speech.”

The underlying case involved a statement made by eighteen-year-old Robert Watts during a public demonstration on the grounds of the Washington Monument.

“I have already received my draft classification as 1-A and I have got to report for my physical this Monday coming,” Watts told fellow attendees. “I am not going. If they ever make me carry a rifle, the first man I want to get in my sights is LBJ.”

Watts allegedly gestured as if he were looking down a rifle sight, and those who were listening laughed. But given the context and the fact that the so-called threat was conditional on something Watts said would never happen — his induction into the armed forces — the court had to agree with his argument that “his only offense here was ‘a kind of very crude offensive method of stating a political opposition to the President.'”

All of which affirms that Kathy Griffin was 100 percent correct when she told Maher that her faux-beheading photo was “distasteful, but not illegal, covered by the First Amendment.”

Griffin is unlikely to be invited to the White House anytime soon, but there are signs that the tsunami of indignation is abating. She was recently the subject of a glowing cover story in the Hollywood Reporter, and she told Maher she’s “dipping my toes into touring again” with U.S. dates for her “Laugh Your Head Off” world tour, including one at Carnegie Hall in New York City and another in “Trump’s backyard,” the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

In other words, having suffered a bit for her craft, Griffin can now milk the controversy for all it’s worth.

It’s almost as if she planned it this way.

About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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