Director, Commonwealth Policy Center
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Political cartoonist Joel Pett’s most recent sketch has caused an uproar in the commonwealth and the nation at large. Depicting Gov.-elect Matt Bevin crouching in fear underneath his desk, another gentleman encourages Mr. Bevin not to fear. The reason for this word of courage is apparently Mr. Bevin’s concern about the pictures on his desk. The gentleman soothes him by stating that the images are not terrorists, but his children. The cartoon, a reaction to Bevin’s recent commitment to refrain from housing Syrian refugees, is one of many example of journalists and political cartoonists exploring the boundaries of first amendment rights for political exploitation. The brouhaha following the release of his cartoon forced Mr. Pett to respond. Posted later that day, he wrote that he stood by his political cartoon. Pett stated that it was designed as a demonstration of the outrageous political speak Bevin and others have offered in defense of their position. Pett continued on to say that he was merely using Bevin’s children as a political prop, much like the Gov.-elect did on numerous campaign stops during this election cycle. He ended the article with an appeal that we use his recent work to deliberate on the merits of immigrating refugees seeking asylum from war torn Syria.

While Mr. Pett has every right to sketch what he believes and every right to print such ideas in any newspaper that will take it, the better question to explore is why precisely would one want to use someone’s children as agitprop? There is a fine line between using children to make a point and using those who have no voice in the matter as pawns in advancing an agenda. The excuse Pett uses for appropriating Bevin’s children as an example is misguided at best, nefarious at worst. What precisely makes the Governor-elect any different than other elected officials? Hundreds of political candidates have their family on stage and in commercials during election season. You may wish to quibble with the use of such ideas, but incorporating children into the political fray is unnecessary. He may be attempting to make a point, but most will not see it. The headline to Pett’s published article is “Bevin criticized, not his children or adoption.” What Mr. Pett apparently does not realize is by bringing the governor elect’s children into a sober and serious discussion, we won’t talk about the merits of immigration reform. Instead, we’ll be talking about whether or not his cartoon is a “classic” free expression example or beyond the bounds. It will be about Mr. Pett, the Herald Leader, and their editorial decisions. Immigration reform will be lost, despite his best intentions. That sells newspaper and increases clicks, but it will not do what political cartoons should do: provoke discussion about the issues, no matter how many defense pieces Mr. Pett writes.