Joan Rivers handcuffs First Amendment to shopping cart

Thursday, August 9, 2012

For a moment, let’s be thankful for Joan Rivers.

Well, not for her tacky-but-effective public demonstration the other day at a Burbank, Calif., Costco store. Complete with video crew and bullhorn, she hijacked some poor soul’s shopping cart by handcuffing herself to it, in protest of the bulk retailer’s decision not to sell her latest book.

And no thanks either for Rivers’ comparison of the store’s decision not to stock I Hate Everyone … Starting With Me to censorship in Nazi Germany. She thereby showed herself to be neither a student of history nor sensitive to Holocaust survivors.

Worse, she got her basic point wrong by calling her situation “an anti-First Amendment freedom of speech issue.” As complicated as some free-speech issues are, this one isn’t – complicated or a First Amendment issue.

Costco may buy and sell in quantities large enough to equip a nation, but it isn’t one. The 45 words of the First Amendment apply only to government, no matter how large or small the store is. (Note to Rivers – the First Amendment also applies just in the U.S., in case you are contemplating taking this thing to Costco’s international operations.)  Private companies like Costco are free to decide what they will stock and sell, and which products they want to offer. As my colleague Ken Paulson wrote years ago about another big-box store, the phrase is “’Congress shall make no law.’ … Not Wal-Mart shall make no law.’”

So what’s left to be thankful for? When Rivers made waves, a number of people who normally write, broadcast or post about celebrities informed readers, viewers and tweeters about exactly what is in the First Amendment.

Some did it simply, noting the amendment limits only government. Others added snarky comments about Rivers and her career. (I prefer the former approach. We should envy her decades-long, stereotype-shattering career as a comic. Her cartloads of tart jokes and political wit are good examples of free speech.)

When only 4% of us can name all five freedoms in the First Amendment, as found in the 2012 State of the First Amendment survey, any bit of education is welcome. At least Rivers named the right amendment.

So thanks, Joan Rivers. Your stunt had educational as well as entertainment value. Even though you got it wrong, it came out all right.