Exhibition looks at role of editorial cartoonists in commenting on, defending First Amendment protections

Editorial cartoonists are the front line of expressing and forming opinions in media. The quick-hit reactions and interpretations of current events paint provocative and, sometimes, surprisingly thorough pictures of the individuals and events that shape our world, distilling relevant dynamics in ways most purely electronic media can't.

Those individuals and events include forces at play concerning the press itself, and thus editorial cartooning can be necessarily meta. This is at the heart of a new exhibition at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, “Front Line: Editorial Cartoonists and the First Amendment,” one of two new exhibitions at the museum that open on Saturday, April 20, and continue through the fall (the second is “Drawing Blood: Comics and Medicine”).

“I would like to encourage our visitors to think about the role of the editorial cartoonist to stimulate voters to think about issues that matter to our democracy,” said Lucy Caswell, founding curator at Billy Ireland.

Caswell co-curated the exhibition with Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Ann Telnaes, examining how the editorial cartoonist both benefits from and defends free speech and expression.

“Thesignificant differenceof an editorial cartoonist from other cartoonists is that their work must show a point of view. Through satire and ridicule they expose corruption and abuse of power by politicians andinstitutions, and are an important part of our political discourse,” Telnaes said. “Since they are visual-opinion journalists, editorial cartoonists have a unique power because of their ability to reach everyone,regardlessof language or class.”

“Front Line” has two components: historic cartoons on freedom of speech and freedom of the press from the museum's permanent collection, and contemporary editorial cartoons curated from an open call to members of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. Caswell said the exhibition, which also features a written introduction by Floyd Abrams, a New York-based attorney and recognized expert on Constitutional law, includes work documenting anti-cartoon laws from the turn of the 20th century and other pieces addressing issues that include the Pentagon papers and Falwell v. Flynt, as well as more recent work on topics from “fake news” to President Trump's use of Twitter.

“I hope this two-fold approach will provide a rich context for visitors to think about editorial cartoons and cartoonists,” Caswell said. “No other country has a First Amendment. International cartoonists have been and are jailed, tortured, silenced for drawing scurrilous caricatures of their leaders.”