When civics teachers and newspaper columnists invoke the First Amendment, it's usually time to cue the organist, stifle a yawn and cut to the shot of the lone pamphleteer cranking his battered mimeograph machine. It's a Norman Rockwell image of freedom of speech: quaint, familiar and completely disconnected from life in America in the 1990s. These days it's hard to find a free-speech link between the words of Tom Paine and, say, the words of Willard Scott.
But that's because most of us ignore a real and constant threat to free speech, namely, the litigious owners of famous trademarks and popular copyrights. We were taught that the First Amendment is about religion and government and serious stuff like that. No one bothered to explain that the First Amendment reaches such oddities as a pornographic parody of the L.L. Bean catalogue. No one told us that an anatomically correct and politically incorrect spoof of the Poppin' Fresh doughboy has more to do with basic free-speech values than those paladins of the press doing their happy-talk shtick on the 10 o'clock news.
Well, now the Supreme Court is doing the teaching, and the first lesson arrived last month in the form of a Pretty Woman, a risque rap group and a basic concept of copyright law.
To grasp the significance of the case one must first grasp the significance of parody and comic irreverence in the American experience. For more than two centuries, the right to poke fun at the high and mighty has been part of our national character, and parody has long been at the core of our culture - from Mad magazine to the National Lampoon, from Doonesbury's parody of "The Bridges of Madison County" to "Saturday Night Live's" fake commercials.
But . . .
No one, especially a powerful someone, likes to be the target of a spoof. While politicians have learned to grin and bear it, the affluent owners of trademarks and copyrights are far more belligerent and hire far more expensive lawyers. Mock our creations, they warn, and we'll see you in court.
Just ask the small St. Louis magazine that did a spoof of a Michelob Dry ad in the aftermath of an oil spill on the Gasconade River, whose waters supply the brewery. The joke ad featured a fictional product called Michelob Oily and a familiar but oil-drenched eagle screaming "Yuck! …