Monday, November 28, 2005

Judges, Goats and the First Amendment

Back with this, I began my descent into the world of paranoia over activist judges, and then lurched further into the fringes.

The so-called judicial overreaching often proved to be something like this: A suboptimal man who can't take no for an answer elevates a relatively trivial matter into a federal case.

Any old codger can temporarily stall a town council meeting over his weeds citation. It takes manic energy and a certain twisted intelligence to file hundreds of pages of court documents and launch a web site to broadcast the grievance.

Then there's Frank Kulon. You can try to work your way through Kulon's account of how a local justice of the peace and others conspired to take his property, but it's hard to tell even what on, let alone what's true. (According to this article, "Kulon was arrested in 1998 and charged with possessing a stolen gun. Liberty Town Justice Jeffrey S. Altbach, filling in for the town judge in Neversink, set bail as recommended by the prosecutor. Later, the case was dismissed.")

But Kulon wasn't satisfied. He believed the judge and DA had conspired against an immigrant, and he wasn't just going to pack up his jumbled thinking into a lawsuit.

Because Kulon is an artist, he painted his persecutors. Altbach was portrayed as a goat-horned demon. Then he printed the caricature on flyers that promoted his gallery. He also imagined Sullivan County District Attorney Stephen F. Lungen lounging in his office, surrounded by Liberty's corpse and other symbols of a corrupt authority.
Justice Altbach through the eyes of his "victim."
Altbach sued Kulon for defamation and obtained an injunction against displaying any depiction of the judge while the case was pending. Another Judge, Anthony T. Kane, ruled on that case, dimissing the defamation claim, but allowing the injunction to remain in effect. Kulon added Kane to his rogue's gallery.
D.A. Lungen taking a lunch break in his office.
The paintings are cruel and twisted, but also intriguing. They're so clearly symbolic and the product of an unbalanced mind that perhaps the best reaction would've been to laugh them off, but those aren't my symbolic balls hanging out of the loincloth.

All these images and more can be found on Kulon's web site, so the First Amendment triumphed. But the other side of our freedom of expression is the obligation to become informed about what we see and hear, to not let ourselves be swayed by sophistry and lies. The First Amendment provides no protection on the receiving end.

Kane and Altbach conspiring.

Sometimes the voices crying out against injustice will have a case, and other times they will simply be crackpots. But it's important to weigh the facts and not just the crier. Look at Kulon's work one more time.

In addition to his anti-judge paintings, Kulon has turned his art against war. This detail from "Operation Iraqi Freedom" depicts wounded children peering into a lake of blood. His "My Fight" (Mein Kampf) shows President Bush sending off tanks giving the finger to freedom. Sometimes even the crackpots get it right.


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