The Maine Bureau of Liquor Enforcement is now known internationally for refusing to allow beer to be sold here with a label that depicts Santa Claus. It also refused two other beers with labels that include topless women, one of which is from a painting by Delacroix, “Liberty Leading the People.” The bureau has a difficult job in establishing a line between suggestive and offensive, but it must be clear that the line is a long way from where state officials have drawn it this time.
The beer importers, Shelton Brothers, have filed suit over the bureau denying their application to import Santa’s Butt Winter Porter. The pun is over the “butt,” which is also the name for a beer barrel. The label shows a large-bottomed (but dressed) Santa sitting on a barrel, list of good boys and girls in one hand (bet no bureau officials are on that list) and a mug in the other.
The labels could appeal to children, say Maine state police, which seems as likely as the amply endowed woman on St. Pauli Girl beer causing nursing infants to salivate. Speaking of which, the rejection of the labels that include women with exposed breasts also seems overly sensitive to possible offense. Forty years of beer advertising that all but promises young men the adoration of barely dressed young women if only they would buy a particular beer makes the 1830 Delacroix painting of “Marianne,” the national emblem of France that is found on coins and stamps and elsewhere, seem subtle and nuanced.
The state’s refusal to allow the label is reminiscent of Attorney General John Ashcroft covering the aluminum “Spirit of Justice” statue at the Department of Justice after he grew tired of being photographed in front of her naked breast during news conferences. He ended up drawing more attention to the statue for covering it, and that is what the bureau has done with its ban – provided more free advertising that any company could imagine.
Maine should not be in the business of censoring art or restricting silly holiday puns. It would do better to call the ruling an error made with the best of intentions and lift the bans before Maine becomes the butt of bad puns about its restrictive view of free expression.