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UC Davis Pepper Spray Cop an Internet Sensation

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By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on November 21, 2011 12:01 PM

Lt. John Pike. Just days ago he was a regular cop at the University of California, Davis. Now? He’s the subject of an Internet meme.

Pike got the nickname the UC Davis “pepper spray cop” on Friday when video surfaced of a protest in the university’s quad. Clad in riot gear, Pike walks down a line of protesters, casually dousing them with pepper spray.

Whether in solidarity with the Occupy protesters, or amusement at police antics, images of Lt. John Pike have been popping up across the web. And Pike? Well, he’s popping up in Guernica and Twilight’s New Moon.

The pepper spray cop meme gets even more creative. Lt. Pike makes an appearance on the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover; he sprays a burning Tibetan monk; and he attacks a quartet of My Little Ponies.

Unlike the Occupy Davis protesters, those ponies can't cover their eyes. And this time, Lt. John Pike likely has no ability to put an end to their suffering.

No matter how hard he fights, chances are the pepper spray cop can't make these images disappear. While he'd ordinarily be entitled to privacy and the right to manage the use of his image, this situation is a bit unique.

First, no one is making money off of the meme. Pike would thus have a difficult time arguing that these images are infringing on his right of publicity. And secondly, he's a public officer and was acting in his official capacity.

Criticism of public officials has historically been given the highest level of First Amendment protection. This is especially true of police action and misconduct, as they are issues of utmost public importance. Satire and parody are also traditional modes of protected speech.

So Lt. John Pike will just have to deal with the meme--and really hope that the pepper spray cop nickname fades in time.

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