Ex-township trustee to take political-cartoon case to Supreme Court

Wednesday, September 6, 2000

Dan McKimm’s political career lasted all of four years, the time it
took to serve as a trustee in Jackson Township, Ohio.

But a legal case surrounding a campaign brochure from his election to
that office in 1995 remains alive, thanks — or, no thanks, in McKimm’s
case — to a tiny sketch depicting a hand clutching a bundle of money
underneath a table.

The Ohio Supreme Court recently determined that the cartoon suggested
that McKimm’s opponent in that 1995 election — at the time, an incumbent
in that trustee seat —accepted a bribe. The court also ruled last June
that McKimm acted with actual malice to convey a false message to voters.

McKimm denies the cartoon meant or was ever meant to illustrate a

Although he estimates that he has spent upwards of $250,000 on
appeals, he plans to submit another one, this time to the U.S. Supreme Court,
charging that the Ohio court’s ruling violates his First Amendment free-speech

“There’s so much hinging on this for me,” McKimm said in a telephone
interview. “I’ve been basically labeled the equivalent of a molester and a

“It’s in effect ended my political aspirations or any political career
that I’ve had,” he said. “It’s had a tremendous financial impact on me in
trying to defend myself and my free-speech rights.”

McKimm’s case started only days before the November general election
in 1995 when he mailed a campaign brochure to registered voters in the
36,000-resident township near Canton.

The brochure consisted of a quiz that included 18 multiple-choice
questions and several small drawings highlighting why McKimm felt he would make
a better trustee than incumbent Randy Gonzalez. Appearing next to a question
involving Gonzalez’s handling of an architectural bid was the cartoon of the
hand with the packet of money.

Gonzalez filed a complaint with the Ohio Election Commission and a
separate civil lawsuit. McKimm lost the civil lawsuit and was ordered to pay
$73,000 in damages and attorney’s fees. He said he had planned to appeal that
case, but a previous attorney failed to file it in time.

But McKimm found some success in fighting the complaint. Although
the Elections Commission publicly reprimanded McKimm in 1996,
Ohio’s 10th District Court of Appeals later reversed the decision saying the
brochure and the cartoon enjoyed full First Amendment protection.

The Ohio Supreme Court ruling turned the verdict around again.

As he had argued before the Elections Commission and the lower state
courts, McKimm said the cartoon characterized Gonzalez’s award of the bid as
“underhanded, less than open, and hidden beneath the table of secrecy.”

But the Ohio high court said a “reasonable reader” would interpret the
cartoon to mean only one thing: Gonzalez took a bribe. The court further
determined that McKimm knew that wasn’t true but delivered the brochure

“After our independent review of this record, we agree with the
commission and the trial court that McKimm disseminated his
cartoon well aware of its false implication,” Justice Deborah Cook wrote in the
court’s unanimous decision. “McKimm conveyed a message to the reasonable reader
that he knew had no basis in fact.”

Justice Paul Pfieffer, in a column distributed to several Ohio
newspapers, reiterated the court’s point that readers of McKimm’s brochure
could only deduce that his opponent had taken a bribe.

McKimm said no one during his hearings or trials had ever produced
proof that he held any malice against Gonzalez.

“There also wasn’t any evidence whatsoever of me intending to
illustrate my opponent as having taken a bribe,” he said. “The artist of the
drawing testified in court that wasn’t his intention either. The contention
that any form of art is not capable of more than one interpretation, that’s
scary as hell.”

McKimm said he had been able to continue the battle only because he
owns his own security business and has strong support from his wife and four

“It’s been a very haunting experience, particularly when you’re right
and you’re standing for the principles of free speech and freedom of
expression,” McKimm said. “You never recognize the worth and value in what
[are] our First Amendment rights until something as tragic as this happens to
you personally.”

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