A Tennessee Democrat's criticism over the sales of satirical Barack Obama "Disappoint-MINTS"-themed candy in a state university bookstore is leaving the product’s liberal distributor wondering what the real problem is.
The University of Tennessee Bookstore pulled packages of a novelty breath mint off the shelves Tuesday after state Rep. Joe Armstrong (D-Knoxville) expressed his displeasure of the candy's packaging. Armstrong said he felt that the tin which contains the mints and depicts President Barack Obama with the words, "This is Change? Disappoint-MINTS," should not be sold among academic textbooks.
"I think whatever a university bookstore sells in the way of product should be visually neutral," Armstrong told The Christian Post.
Stephan Shaw, founder of the novelty distributor, Unemployed Philosophers Guild and designer of the Obama-themed mints, is a bit taken aback that Armstrong took offense to the product.
"I'm a little surprised about this," he said. "It's so mild ... it's disappointing. It's not even excoriating."
Another Unemployed Philosophers Guild Mint featured is called "Sarah's Embarrass-MINTS" tin. Sarah Palin is pictured on the tin standing on ice, prominently holding a Bible in one hand and a shotgun in the other. Next to her are overturned barrels with oil spilling out.
By comparison, the "Disappoint-MINTS" simply features a statuesque Obama in red and blue. The image mirrors graffiti artist Shepard Fairey's revered 2008 red, white and blue "Hope" painting.
Armstrong says he was alerted to the mints when a constituent saw them and complained to him. University of Tennessee Bookstore Director David Kent said the complainant was a student.
Kent said Armstrong met with him Tuesday, during which time the state legislator shared the student's concern, and questioned whether a state school should carry partisan items in its general merchandise. The bookstore is owned and managed by the university.
However, both Shaw and the store's manager verified that the bookstore has carried Unemployed Philosophers mints for about a decade. In that time, Shaw says the store has carried many political mints mocking conservatives.
"We made a tin called national 'embarrass-MINTS,' which featured George [W.] Bush originally," said Shaw. "We sold a tremendous amount of those mints and got almost no flack at all."
Kent confirmed he never received complaints about any of the other politically-themed mints.
In fact, Shaw says all political mints have always made liberal statements, with the exception of the Disappoint-MINTS.
"When we made the disappoint-MINTs with Obama, we actually debated for a long time whether to do it because we liked him and we were really happy when he was elected," Shaw said. "But he did disappoint us on several occasions in a big way and so we released them." Shaw said he released the mints after Obama renewed the Bush tax cuts.
Most recently, Shaw said Obama disappointed him when he signed the debt compromise into law.
"I felt that he compromised way too much. He gave up way too much," Shaw lamented. "He's our president. He could have acted presidential."
Ironically, a recently released Gallup poll shows that most Americans, 46 percent, disapproved of the agreement reached by Obama and Congress. Of the liberals questioned, 35 percent of them said they disapproved of the compromise.
In a phone interview with CP, Armstrong remained adamant about his position and said he would not change his mind even if the mints featured Republicans.
“For me it wasn’t about party affiliation. I would have requested the product be removed even if they featured Governor Haslam,” Armstrong added.
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam is the state’s recently elected Republican Governor and the former Mayor of Knoxville.
Kent said he decided, of his own volition, to remove all political and religious general merchandise items from his store.
"What I decided to do is I said 'you know what, I don't want to be in this conversation in the future because it really detracts from our primary mission,'" he resolved.
Kent is not upset about his decision; he told CP that he believes the mints are insignificant to the store's primary goal.
However, Glenn Reynolds, a constitutional law professor at University of Tennessee, told The Knoxville News Sentinel he believes what Armstrong did falls under the category of “censorship.”
"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," said Reynolds. "There is no candy exception to the First Amendment."
Before the mints’ removal, Kent said they were not particularly popular. He said the store generally sold about two 30-tin cases a year.
Since removing the product, he said the phone has been ringing off the hook with people requesting the mints.
An Unemployed Philosophers Guild customer service representative told CP that its supply "Disappoint-MINTS" is now completely sold out.
The store, which regularly donates to human rights non-profits such as Kids for a Better Future, and Women for Afghan Women, are considering donating some of the Disappoint-MINT proceeds as well, said Shaw.