Bud Johnson, the Texas homeowner who made national headlines after apparently “lynching” an empty chair in a tree in the front yard of his North Austin home, has now taken the display down. (Austin, the “blueberry in the tomato soup,” a phrase Rick Perry recently borrowed from Molly Ivins, seems an unlikely venue for such a display.)
When speaking to a reporter from KEYE on Thursday, Johnson claimed he suspended the chair from the tree not as a nod to Clint Eastwood’s speech to the Republican National Convention but because “it’s the only place I had to put the damn thing,” he said. “I’m not a racist. It has nothing to do with lynching anybody.”
But, when asked by Austin American-Statesman columnist Ken Herman if it was connected to Eastwood’s RNC speech, he said “That’s exactly what it meant.”
Katherine Haenschen, who broke the story on the Austin-based liberal blog Burnt Orange Report last Wednesday, told NBC News that there is no other way the display can be taken. “Someone always wants to say, ‘you’re making a big deal out of it, it’s just a chair.’ But I don’t see how you can dismiss the racial message of lynching a symbol of the first African-American president. It’s really tough for me to see how folks might, after the Eastwood speech, not view this as a racially charged message and a symbol of a threat to the president’s life.”
Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center agreed with that sentiment. “To me, this is just one more manifestation of racially-based hatred against our first black president,” Potok told the TM Daily Post.
At the Examiner, Jordan Yerman opined that the chair has to be an Obama effigy. “Obviously it is. What else, in the aftermath of the now-infamous Clint Eastwood GOP Convention speech, could it possibly mean? A deep-seated anger towards folding chairs? Come on.”
And Johnson’s display did attract the notice of the Secret Service. “The only comment that we will make is we are aware of this matter and we will conduct all appropriate follow up,” Max Milien, a spokesman for the Secret Service, told the TM Daily Post Tuesday. Similar displays have cropped up elsewhere in the country, including in Centreville, Virginia, but when asked how many similar chair incidents the agency was looking into around the country, Milien declined to name a number, citing agency policy.
Glenn W. Smith of Progress Texas PAC tackled the topic at the Huffington Post, noting that the “popular movement involving the display of empty chairs was initiated by right-wing blogger Michelle Malkin,” although Malkin did not write anything about hanging the chairs. “Decorate yours anyway you want it,” she wrote.
At Burnt Orange Report, Austin lawyer Edward Garris examined whether or not the chair display was legal, parsing some of the case law on political speech hate speech:
In the United States, the First Amendment recognizes a hierarchy of speech with political speech sitting at the top, and things such as obscenity and defamation lurking at the bottom. Insulting or fighting words reside near the lower end of the hierarchy, long deemed to offer “no essential part of any exposition of ideas.”
The First Amendment has protected and continues to protect some pretty odious speech. To determine whether Mr. Johnson’s chair merits that protection, it is necessary to decide what type of speech the chair was and where it “sat” on the hierarchy. Is it political speech? Is it threatening speech? Is it hate speech?
Some states, including Louisiana, have laws outlawing the public display of a noose “with the intent to intimidate any person or group.” In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Virgina v. Black that states can criminalize cross burning that is carried out with that same intent.
Haenschen, while dismayed by the effigy, in a later post at Burnt Orange Report wrote that the outcry over the chair affirmed the notion that such sentiments are no longer mainstream:
I’m heartened, however, by the force and volume of the castigating response to Johnson’s displays, accelerated by digital media and transmitted by a younger generation of Americans that are vastly more accepting, who celebrate our pluralistic and multi-cultural society, and who value the diversity that makes America great. As my former State Senator Barack Obama said himself in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention, “in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”
WATCH Johnson take down his chair display and speak to a KEYE reporter: