Out to Annoy

HE’S MADE MICKEY MOUSE a homosexual martyr, strapped Dick Cheney to General Electric’s electric chair, slapped the pope onto a perforated condom wrapper and transformed Lady Liberty into a rifle-wielding madwoman.

If Clinton Fein has annoyed you, pissed you off, offended your sensibilities, well, that’s exactly what he meant to do. And he makes no apologies for it.

The 37-year-old creator of Annoy.com creates art to offend and allows users of his site to send his artfully offensive e-postcards to anyone they would like to annoy.

His commentary is current, brash and to the point. His latest depiction has President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld riding a tank into a fiery Supreme Court Building with “Justice Just For Us” emblazoned underneath.

“When media and politicians are your subject matter, there is no shortage of material, in terms of stupid and shocking,” he said. “But pure shock value is easy. What is beyond the shock value, that is more of a challenge.”

And Fein’s hits have come close to home.

He came out in support of local activists Michael Petrelis and David Pasquarelli, who are fighting what they term the AIDS establishment, immediately after their arrest in November. The controversial activists are being held on $1.1 million bail on felony counts of criminal harassment, threats and conspiracy.

The South African native was disturbed that District Attorney Terrence Hallinan called their acts terrorism — charges which include harassing phone calls, faxes and e-mails to Chronicle reporters, public health officials and AIDS researchers. Court papers, however, also refer to a bomb threat.

In classic Annoy.com style, Fein came out in support of the activists with an e-postcard, which protested the excessive bail, using war imagery and the statement: “What are you going to do about it?”

“Regardless of their methodology, the backlash is detrimental to anyone,” he said of what many call Petrelis and Pasquarelli’s abusive scare tactics. And anyone is fair game in Fein’s e-art free-speech statements, from politicians and corporations to the media.

“The Chronicle is very guilty of suppressing free speech,” Fein said. “Not once have they said, we support (the free speech rights of) Petrelis and Pasquarelli.”

Fein has been to court twice to defend his First Amendment rights, and both times he won affirmation of his right to annoy.

His 1997 suit challenged the Communications Decency Act, which previously made it a felony to use the Internet to send communications that were “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy or indecent” when the intent was to “annoy, abuse, threaten or harass” another person. The court found that the First Amendment protected Fein’s right to send indecent communications that were intended, quite clearly, to annoy.

Two years later, government investigators wanted Fein to hand over the identity of someone who had sent an Annoy.com e-postcard with an explicitly sexual and violent message.

Fein refused to give up the sender and was taken to court. The investigators eventually backed off and he kept the sender’s identity protected.

Free-speech advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) defend Fein’s right to say what he wants and to help others express their First Amendment rights as well.

“The First Amendment allows (people) to say impolite and rude things and there is a place for that,” said Lee Tien, EFF spokesman. “Public discourse is not always polite and civil.”

Fein’s in-your-face political statements have gotten him plenty of nasty notes, and even death threats. But his Web site clearly spells out his aversion to threats of physical harassment and promises to hand over to law enforcement anyone who tries to “spoil our free speech party.”

“Even if it’s some renegade authoritarian dictatorship that might crucify your stupid a– if they catch you.”

And if that pisses you off as well, he’ll be glad to know that you are annoyed.

February 3, 2002, San Francisco Examiner