The thought police: Lay down your rights and back away slowly!

Thursday, June 21, 2001

The police are our friends. They are out there every day, putting their lives on the line to protect us from danger and crime. But more and more, it seems, they are being pressured to take time out from that full-time job to track down and arrest American citizens, young and old, caught in the act of committing speech.

None of us, in today’s proper and paranoid environment, is spared the possibility of winding up in handcuffs and headed to court for something we’ve said or read. Or worse, for something someone somewhere thinks that we thought.

Take the case of two 8-year-old boys in Irvington, N.J., who had their minds scanned by their principal last March and wound up arrested and charged with making “terroristic threats.” The principal thought the boys might be thinking of mayhem rather than cops and robbers, as they insisted, because one had found a piece of notebook paper folded into the shape of a gun and pointed it at classmates, saying, “I’m going to kill you all.”

School board president Andrea McElroy, commenting on the subsequent ordeal for the children, said, “I feel very sorry for what those two boys had to endure. They were children playing a child’s game. Unfortunately for everyone, the wrong words were used.”

Ah, the wrong words were used. But it’s not just the wrong words that can get you into trouble with the law. The wrong images can, too.

In Florida last month, the principal at Oldsmar Elementary School summoned police and had a fifth-grader led away in handcuffs because he had drawn weapons — as in drawing pictures of them. Nevertheless, the principal looked into the 11-year-old’s mind and decided the drawings were a threat. Although the principal had other responses at his disposal, he chose to have the child arrested — and praised the classmates who turned him in.

In another image case earlier this week, a federal judge ruled in favor of a 66-year-old grandmother who had been arrested and charged with child endangerment for taking nude photos of two grandchildren. Marian Rubin had sued the Essex County, N.J., prosecutor’s office and the Montclair police department to get back the photos seized by authorities. The award-winning photographer was arrested more than a year ago for taking the same sort of photos of her grandchildren that people used to have made in professional studios of their kids on bearskin rugs.

The judge ruled the photos were not pornographic. She should never have been arrested and charged. The prosecutor has until next week to decide whether to appeal the judge’s ruling.

Hopefully, he will follow the example of a colleague in New York who decided not to pursue a case against two high school students in Chappaqua. They were arrested on May 30 and charged with harassment after school officials told police they had posted a Web site about the alleged sexual exploits of fellow students. They faced a year in jail and a $1,000 fine until the prosecutor announced that “we found the material on the site offensive and reprehensible,” but “there is not sufficient evidence to support a criminal prosecution.”

Such examples — and there are many — don’t seem to deter those who want to make sure nothing is said, read or viewed that doesn’t live up to their definition of what’s proper and acceptable. On the contrary.

Take Bruce Taylor, president of the National Law Center for Children and Families, for example. Referring to allegedly rampant obscenity on the Internet, Taylor recently effused: “If I was a prosecutor, I’d be like a kid in a candy store.”

Then there’s Patrick Trueman of the American Family Association who has said he would like to see Yahoo! head Terry Semel arrested and subjected to a high-profile trial. Trueman believes that some of the material on Yahoo! violates pornography laws.

The American Family Association, where Trueman is chief lobbyist, was among several anti-porn groups that met privately with Attorney General John Ashcroft recently to push for more prosecution of obscenity and child pornography. Other groups represented at the meeting, according to a report by Declan McCullagh of, were: Concerned Women of America, the Family Research Council, Morality in Media and the American Center for Law and Justice.

During a June 9 congressional hearing, Attorney General Ashcroft warned that the Justice Department would help local prosecutors with pornography cases but stopped short of saying he would launch an anti-porn crusade. Interestingly, an Ashcroft spokesman said several months ago that his office would be studying the experiment in Utah, where the nation’s first-ever “porn czar” — officially known as the Obscenity and Pornography Complaints Ombudsman — has been appointed. Paula Houston’s job is to do her best to cleanse the state of pornography.

Such efforts have gained a new tool in the form of a computer virus, of all things. This bug can burrow into your computer via e-mail and find what it considers child pornography and then send your name to local law enforcement as well as the FBI. The self-appointed “Hackers for Decency” who designed this virus apparently experience no moral qualms in invading your online home, ransacking it for “dirty pictures” and anonymously tagging you as a pervert, despite the fact that no sin-sniffing software exists that can make a meaningful distinction between child porn and lawful material.

Real obscenity and threats are illegal. They are not protected by the First Amendment. But the concern raised by these incidents is that the frontier between protected speech and illegal speech is treacherously ambiguous terrain. What many would-be censors believe — or would have the rest of us believe — is obscene or threatening is actually free speech under the Constitution and the law.

Yet in countless communities across this country, the thought police are dispatched regularly to arrest people whose speech the censors don’t like. From 8-year-olds to grandmothers, Americans are being slapped in handcuffs and led off to the police station on a routine basis. This is a chilling mutation of run-of-the-mill censorship, such as the banning of books and filtering of computers.

And the presumption of innocence doesn’t apply in the merciless realm of such zealotry. Before you ever get your day in court, you have to prove to the prosecutors and your community that you are not guilty, usually in a most humiliating — not to mention expensive — way.

No doubt, most Americans regard this sort of thing with a certain amount of smugness. They don’t make threats or go to school. They don’t look at indecent things. And they don’t believe the next knock on the door by an officer of the law could be for them — or their 8-year-old child or their grandmother. But just these few examples should be a warning to us all.

There is something we should fear even more than that knock on the door, though. And that is the fact that the thought police and censors among us see absolutely no irony in insisting on sparing us a glimpse of an unclothed human by stripping speech bare of its First Amendment protections.

The idea of going beyond the mere silencing of words and images to punishing their utterance has a lot of appeal perhaps, if only we could get past the fact that it invariably debases our culture rather than elevating it and destroys freedom rather than securing it.

When all is said and done, no matter what the rationale for sending out the police to arrest our thinking, it still amounts to moral thuggery.

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