WASHINGTON (CN) — In a case where zombies, Jesus and Jeb Bush made the cut, a federal judge found that the U.S. Postal Service must face discrimination claims for turning down a custom stamp critical of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
Ukraine-born artist Anatol Zukerman brought the suit last year at the age of 78, saying the Postal Service has permitted a company called Zazzle to carry out the government’s postage-customization program in a discriminatory manner.opinion
Zukerman says he fled the Soviet Union in the 1970s and that his art reflects “the politics of a man who has seen the extremes, lived on both sides of the divide during the Cold War and concluded that there must be a better, more humane way for societies to function.”
Now a resident of Plymouth, Mass., Zukerman notes that the Washington, D.C., gallery Charles Krause Reporting has been his sole agent and marketing representative since 2013.
That year, the gallery held an exhibit of Zukerman’s work that included a drawing of “Uncle Sam being strangled by a snake labeled Citizens United and configured as a dollar sign,” the complaint states.
Both Zukerman and the gallery’s managing director say they are critical of Citizens United — a 2010 Supreme Court decision that tossed out the ban on campaign-spending limits for corporations.
Hoping to promote Zukerman’s work and raise awareness at the same time, the pair decided to create a custom U.S. postage stamp depicting the work.
When Zukerman submitted the postage request in spring 2015, however, Zazzle refused to process the order, saying his designs conflicted with content guidelines.
Zukerman and the gallery note that this claim is undermined by the various partisan or political stamps that Zazzle has printed over the years.
The 16-page complaint is replete with examples of stamps supporting the 2016 presidential campaigns of Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders and Jeb Bush, as well as stamps that alternately promote Christianity and atheism.
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As to the possibility that someone might mistake a customized stamp for government speech, Zukerman questions why Zazzle has allowed stamps that say “I Believe in Picking My Nose” and “’Til Death Do Us Part Is for Quittters.”
U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper advanced the case on Dec. 6, rejecting the Postal Service’s argument that the challenge does not belong in court, but rather before an administrative tribunal called the Postal Regulatory Commission.
Noting that the commission is “primarily charged with adjudicating postal rate and service complaints,” Cooper found the case for dismissal uncompelling.
“The court finds that the relevant authorizing statute vests the commission with jurisdiction over only a handful of subject matter-specific claims, none of which may fairly be understood to encompass core First Amendment challenges like those presented here,” the 12-page states.
A spokesman for the Postal Service has not returned a request for comment.
Charles Krause Reporting also did not respond to a request for comment. Zukerman deferred questions to his attorney. K. Chris Todd, the artist's attorney with the firm Kellogg, Huber, Hansen, Todd, Evans & Figel, has not responded to an email.
One ambition of the Citizens United stamp, according to last year’s complaint, had been “to advertise the gallery’s forthcoming exhibition (called ‘The 1% Exhibit: Visualizing Income Inequality in America’).” (Parentheses in original.)
Scheduled to open in February 2016, the exhibit was set to include Zukerman’s art, including the Citizens United drawing, as well as work by other artists protesting income inequality.
The Postal Service is not the only government entity whose foray into customization has inspired First Amendment claims. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a veterans' group that claimed its members had a free-speech right to vanity plates bearing the Confederate flag.