KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Breath mints are usually refreshing, but a Knoxville legislator believes a University of Tennessee bookstore's selling of novelty candies mocking President Barack Obama stinks.
UT officials pulled the mints poking fun at Obama from store shelves after state Rep. Joe Armstrong, a Democrat, visited the bookstore and told the director he found the satirical mints offensive.
"When you operate on state and federal dollars, you ought to be sensitive to those type of politically specific products," Armstrong said. "If it was a private entity or corporation or store, (that's different), but this is a state university. We certainly don't want in any way to put the university in a bad light by having those political (products), particularly aimed at defaming the president."
The tin can of mints has a blue and red image of the president with the words: "This is change? Disappointmints."
Armstrong said he got a call from a student who was bothered by the depiction of the president, and the legislator followed up Tuesday with a visit to the bookstore in the basement of the University Center. There, he purchased a box of the $2.99 mints and had a conversation with director David Kent, who ultimately removed product from the shelves.
Kent said the store previously carried satirical mints aimed at former President George W. Bush when he was in office.
"We've never had any complaints before and we've carried them for years," Kent said. "But someone saw it and they were offended by it, brought it to the attention of a state representative, and I said, 'No problem, we'll remove them."'
Armstrong insisted he would take the same stance if he had seen mints making fun of Bush or Gov. Bill Haslam, both Republicans.
Armstrong also said that since the mints were not educational material, there was no breech of the First Amendment.
"With a book or something of that nature, then fine, but that (the mints) is sort of a discretionary product they have," Armstrong said. "It wasn't viewpoint neutral. Very specifically insulting to the president."
Margie Nichols, vice chancellor for communication at UT, agreed that there was no violation of free speech and said the bookstore is run as a business with discretion over what products to sell.
Others disagree, however, pointing to Armstrong's involvement as a form of censorship.
"Let me make very clear, there is no candy exception to the First Amendment," said Glenn Reynolds, who teaches constitutional law at UT. "Free speech is free speech. If you make fun of the president in a mint, it is just as much free speech as it is if you make fun of the president in a political cartoon."
While citizens have the right to express disapproval of a message on a tin can of breath mints, that opinion has more heft when it's coming from a government official, Reynolds said, calling it "a species of censorship."
"I just think it's really quite odd to hear of a state legislator to take it upon himself to have something removed from a bookstore. It's the kind of thing people make fun of Mississippi for," Reynolds added.
The company that sells the mints, Unemployed Philosopher's Guild, sells more than 25 different varieties of mints on their website, including some that make fun of Sarah Palin and Bush.
(Contact Megan Boehnke of The Knoxville News Sentinel in Tennessee at firstname.lastname@example.org.)