When free speech is in the cards

Sunday, December 29, 2002

New York City’s lawyers disappointed Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

Outraged by new “Heroes of the World Trade Center” trading cards, the mayor ordered the city’s law department to find a way to block their distribution. “I think it’s disgraceful, despicable,” Bloomberg told the press. “Why anybody would ever want to do that, I can’t quite understand. It’s just sick.”

Of course, Bloomberg is simply continuing a recent New York City trend. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani was particularly quick to call in his legal staff when he was offended by art in local museums.

New York’s lawyers sent an aggressive letter to Chestnut Publications, publishers of the cards, but acknowledged in the end that they had no legal mechanism to stop distribution.

This conclusion was no surprise. The First Amendment protects the distribution of information in words and pictures. It doesn’t matter whether the information is contained in a book, a magazine or on 2-by-3 inch pieces of cardboard.

Some of those who benefit most from the First Amendment have been most critical of this form of free expression. Columnist Kerry Dougherty of The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot described the cards as “an odious, grave-digging — make that grave-robbing — product.” The Eagle-Tribune in New Hampshire editorialized: “You have to go deep into the sewers beneath the low road to come up with anything as appalling as” these cards.

While some characterize the cards as tacky and tasteless, others — including many members of victims’ families — view them positively. The 202-card set includes profiles of 170 people, many of whom were killed in the disaster.

Only those people whose families had given approval appear on the cards, according to the publishers. A sample profile of firefighter Thomas H. Casoria reads, “His final moments on earth were spent with two other firefighters, carrying a trapped paraplegic man out of the World Trade Center. … He was a serious team player and didn’t consider his job as a firefighter work. It was his life and it was in his blood.”

Casoria’s father Carlo told the New York Post that he gave permission for his son to appear on the card because “I want people to know he was a hero and had a purpose in life.”

Kingsley Barham, president of Chestnut Publications, defends his “memorial” cards as journalism. He has a point.

The New York Times published 1,910 profiles of victims of the World Trade Center attacks. Each profile featured a photograph and a brief biography. The profiles were done in cooperation with the victims’ families, although the newspaper did not pay royalties. These biographies have been collected in book form, with profits going to charity.

Similarly, Chestnut Publications’ cards feature photos and brief biographies. The profiles were done in cooperation with the victims’ families, and the publisher is paying a royalty of 8%.

In truth, this controversy appears to be about the format, not the content. Those who grew up trading baseball cards or inserting them in the spokes of a bicycle wheel can’t reconcile these slabs of cardboard as a fitting memorial.

In fact, the trading-card format has long been used as a medium for conveying more serious historical, political and military content. Some examples:

  • In 1951, during the height of the Red Scare, Bowman Gum issued “Fight the Red Menace” trading cards. The cards told the story of the “children’s crusade against Communism.” Subjects of the cards ranged from the Berlin airlift to Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
  • Just months after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Topps Chewing Gum issued “The Story of President Kennedy” picture cards, distributed in packs along with a stick of bubblegum. Among card subjects: the 1960 presidential debate and JFK’s inauguration.
  • During the height of the 1964 presidential campaign, Topps published “Johnson vs. Goldwater” trading cards, profiling the presidential candidates for a younger generation.
  • In 1991, Topps distributed Desert Storm trading cards, including images of Scud missiles and Saddam Hussein. The set was published with the cooperation of the Pentagon and the Navy.
  • Building on that success, the same company issued “Enduring Freedom” trading cards last year, focusing on the U.S. response to the Sept. 11 attack. Card subjects included President Bush, Condoleezza Rice and Osama Bin Laden.

Meaningful content can appear in many forms, including small slabs of cardboard. The First Amendment protects free speech, regardless of the format. In the end, it’s about the message, not the medium.