Browsing the archives for the Think of the Children! tag.


Fear Cuts Deeper Than Swords: Bergen Community College Freaks Out Over "Game of Thrones" T-Shirt

Culture, Education, Law, WTF?

Tragedy is inevitable. Our reaction to tragedy is not. We cannot govern every risk, but we must govern our reactions to risks. Here's the question we must ask ourselves: when awful things happen in the world, will we abandon reason and accept any measure urged by officials — petty and great — who invoke those awful things as justifications for action? Or will we think critically and demand that our leaders do so as well? Will we subject cries of "crime" and "drugs" and "terrorism" and "school shootings" to scrutiny? Will we be convinced to turn on each other in an irrational frenzy of suspicion, "for the children?"

If we don't maintain our critical thinking, we wind up with a nation run more and more like Bergen Community College in New Jersey, where we may be questioned and sent for reeducation for posting a picture of our daughter in a popular t-shirt on Google+.

Naturally the FIRE has the story, sourced from Inside Higher Education.

Francis Schmidt is a popular professor of design and animation at Bergen. Schmidt posted to Google+ a cute picture of his young daughter wearing a Game of Thrones t-shirt in a yoga pose next to a cat. The t-shirt was this one, bearing the phrase "I will take what is mine with fire and blood," a quote from Daenerys Targaryen, a fictional character in a series of fantasy novels (which has sold tens of millions of copies) turned into a hot TV series on HBO (with close to 15 million viewers per episode.) Googling the phrase will instantly provide a context to anyone unfamiliar with the series.

So: a professor posts a cute picture of his kid in a t-shirt with a saying from a much-talked-about tv show. In the America we'd like to believe in, nothing happens. But in the America we've allowed to creep up on us, this happens:

But one contact — a dean — who was notified automatically via Google that the picture had been posted apparently took it as a threat. In an email, Jim Miller, the college’s executive director for human resources, told Schmidt to meet with him and two other administrators immediately in light of the “threatening email.”

Although it was winter break, Schmidt said he met with the administrators, including a security official, in one of their offices and was questioned repeatedly about the picture’s meaning and the popularity of “Game of Thrones.”

Schmidt said Miller asked him to use Google to verify the phrase, which he did, showing approximately 4 million hits. The professor said he asked why the photo had set off such a reaction, and that the security official said that “fire” could be a kind of proxy for “AK-47s.”

Despite Schmidt’s explanation, he was notified via email later in the week that he was being placed on leave without pay, effectively immediately, and that he would have to be cleared by a psychiatrist before he returned to campus. Schmidt said he was diagnosed with depression in 2007 but was easily cleared for this review, although even the brief time away from campus set back his students, especially those on independent study.

So. That happened.

Pressed for an explanation of this lunacy, Bergen Community College Kaye Walter retreated into the first refuge of a modern authoritarianism, "think of the children":

Walter said she did not believe that the college had acted unfairly, especially considering that there were three school shootings nationwide in January, prior to Schmidt’s post. The suspects in all three shootings were minors targeting their local schools (although three additional shootings at colleges or universities happened later in the month).

This — this — is the core demand of the modern Fear State. Tell us what to fear, leaders, for the night is dark and full of terrors. Tell us what we have to do. Tell us what to think, and how to assess risks. Tell us "if you see something, say something" so we may feel duty-bound to vent our fears and insecurities about our fellow citizens rather than exercising judgment or compassion or proportion. Assure us that you must exercise your growing powers for our own safety, to ward off the terrible things we worry about.

Is Bergen some sort of unlikely citadel of irrationality? At first glance it may seem so. After all no well person would interpret the t-shirt as a threat and report it. That takes irrationality or dysfunction. No minimally competent or intelligent or honest school administrator would pursue such a report upon receiving it; rather, anyone exercising anything like rational discretion would Google the thing and immediately identify it as a mundane artifact of popular culture. No honest or near-normal intellect would say, as Jim Miller did, that the "fire" in the slogan might refer to an AK-47, a profoundly idiotic statement that resembles arguing that "May the Force Be With You" is a threat of force. Nobody with self-respect or minimal ability would claim that this professor's treatment was somehow justified by school shootings.

But Bergen isn't an anomaly. It's not a collection of dullards and subnormals — though Jim Miller and Kaye Walker could lead to think that it is. Bergen is the emerging norm. Bergen represents what we, the people, have been convinced to accept. Bergen is unremarkable in a world where we've accepted "if you see something, say something" as an excuse to emote like toddlers, and where we're lectured that we should be thankful that our neighbors are so eager to inform on us. Bergen is mundane in a world where we put kids in jail to be brutalized over obvious bad jokes on social media. Bergen exists in a world where officials use concepts like "cyberbullying" to police and retaliate against satire and criticism. Bergen exists in a world where we have allowed fears — fear of terrorism, fear of drugs, fear of crime, fear for our children — to become so powerful that merely invoking them is a key that unlocks any right. Bergen exists in a country where our leaders realize how powerful those fears are, and therefore relentlessly stretch them further and further, so we get things like the already-Orwellian Department of Homeland Security policing DVD piracy.

Certainly the Miller-Walter mindset is not unique in American academia. We've seen a professor's historical allusion cynically repackaged as a threat. We've seen a community college invoke 9/11 and Virginia Tech and Columbine to ban protest signs. In pop-culture debacle much like this one, we've seen a college tear down a "Firefly" poster as a threat. We've seen satire and criticism punished as "actionable harassment" or ""intimidation."

As a nation, we all need to decide whether we will surrender our critical thinking in response to buzzwords like "terrorism" and "drugs" and "crime" and "school shootings." On a local level, we must decide whether we will put up with such idiocy from our educational institutions. So tell me, students and teachers and alumni of Bergen Community College. Are you going to put up with that? Because institutions that act like this are not helping young people to be productive and independent adults. They are teaching fear, ignorance, and subservience.

If you feel strongly about it, you could tell Bergen Community College on its Twitter Account or Facebook page.

Update: Bergen made a statement doubling down:

"The referenced incident refers to a private personnel matter at Bergen Community College. Since January 1, 2014, 34 incidents of school shootings have occurred in the United States. In following its safety and security procedures, the college investigates all situations where a member of its community – students, faculty, staff or local residents – expresses a safety or security concern."

There are at least two maddening components to this. First, they didn't just "investigate" — they suspended the professor and made him see a psychiatrist because he posted a picture of his daughter in a wildly popular t-shirt from pop culture. Second, the statement is an implicit admission that the college refuses to exercise critical thinking about the complaints it receives. There is no minimally rational connection between school shootings — or any type of violence — and a picture of someone's kid in a pop-culture t-shirt. The college is saying, in effect, "complain to us about your angers or fears, however utterly irrational, and we will act precipitously on them, because OMG 9/11 COLUMBINE TEH CHILDREN." Shameful. Ask yourself: what kind of education do you think your children will get from people who think like this?

97 Comments

Brave Educators Confront Guns, Vampires

Culture, Education, Politics & Current Events

DATELINE Harmony, Florida

In days gone by, the worst that teachers and school administrators had to worry about was chewing gum, running in the halls, and the occasional skirt that brushed the knee.

Now, however, educators face an arsenal arrayed against them and against the safety and discipline of our nation's schools. Students brandish pistols, rifles, grenades, swords (both steel and plasma), gigantic fighting robots, and occasionally dinosaurs.

Now, to be perfectly accurate, some of these weapons are imaginary. For instance, the Harmony Community School recently suspended eight-year-old Jordan Bennett for making an imaginary gun with his finger while playing with friends at recess. But educators maintain that good order requires zero tolerance of any reference to violence, real or imagined.

Osceolla County School District spokesperson Dol Umbridge bristled at the suggestion that suspending an eight-year-old for imaginative play was excessive. "A gun is a gun, whether you choose to brand it as 'real' or not," said Umbridge. "Imagining violence leads to violence. Past permissiveness about 'games' of 'cops and robbers' are exactly why crime is at an all-time high. And children who imagine guns will go on to imagine other things, which is highly detrimental to our curriculum. Moreover, thanks to budget cuts, many of our professional educators have been deprived of the in-service training days that would permit them to distinguish between 'real' and 'imaginary' guns."

Umbridge added that the district's policy against imaginary items is based on a successful initiative launched by the federal government in 2001.

"The point is," Umbridge explained, "that there have been school shootings in this country. Those school shootings demonstrate that parents should accept the risk assessments of teachers and school administrators, and give them the benefit of the doubt that they only want what is best for our children." Umbridge's defensive comment may have been a reference to a somewhat controversial incident at an Osceolla County school last October when a Vice Principal staked a third-grader pretending to be a vampire at an Autumn Festival. Vampires are on Osceolla County's list of prohibited subjects of imaginative play because of their association with violence, sexuality, and dysfunctional relationships.

Though the no-imaginative-play policy has met some opposition, it also enjoys support. "I can't teach my kid the difference between fantasy and reality. That's what schools are for," said one Orlando father who had recently blamed the popular computer game "Minecraft" for his nine-year-old son bringing a steak knife, bullets, and an inoperative but real handgun to elementary school. "I look to the government to flush this sort of nonsense out of his head. What am I supposed to do about it?"

94 Comments

Glendale Unified School District, Concerned About Social Media, Pays Money To Be Creepy

Culture

I'm fond of Glendale Unified School District. It endured me for several years as a misbegotten youth. I learned computers on Commodores and later Apples stamped with G.U.S.D. that my mom would bring home for the summer to do school district work. She worked there for thirty years as a teacher and vice-principal and principal and head of the gifted education program. District schools did an excellent job with my two older kids, notwithstanding the occasional head injury and total lack of common sense.

But this is an extremely creepy development.

Glendale school officials have hired a Hermosa Beach company to monitor and analyze public social media posts, saying the service will help them step in when students are in danger of harming themselves or others.

After collecting information from students' posts on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter, Geo Listening will provide Glendale school officials with a daily report that categorizes posts by their frequency and how they relate to cyber-bullying, harm, hate, despair, substance abuse, vandalism and truancy.

Quoth one official:

"People are always looking to see what we're doing to ensure that their kids are safe. This just gives us another opportunity to ensure the kids are safe at all times," he said.

But kids are never going to be "safe at all times." That's an unreachable goal, and when you set it, it justifies any and all intrusion into the lives of kids and their families. Moreover, the school is responsible for kids' safety when kids are at school. "At all times" is none of their damn business.

I can see a reason for schools to search public social media in response to specified threats or as part of specific investigations. But sucking up all the public data kids leave out there and hiring companies to data-mine it? That's a thoroughly creepy increase in government surveillance.

Fortunately, it's also an excellent opportunity to teach kids a lesson. Hey kids: (1) things you do on the internet are public unless you take sufficient steps to make them private; (2) the government will spy on everything you do if you let it; (3) your government feels entitled to know about everything you do; (4) your government feels entitled to have a say about everything you do; (5) your government is not to be trusted.

118 Comments

Law Enforcement Wants To Weaken Section 230: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Law

Via the ACLU I see that the Attorneys General of several states are asking Congress to weaken Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Section 230 — which we have lauded here before — is crucial to freedom of expression on the internet. It gives broad immunity (with the exception of copyright and federal criminal law) to blogs, forums, news services, and other web sites for comments or other content left by visitors. Thanks to Section 230, I can't be sued for what you say in the comments to this post. Absent Section 230, I would have to police my comments for potential defamation and potential violation of the laws of a thousand jurisdictions.

As the ACLU reports, several Attorneys General want to weaken Section 230 to create an exception for any federal or state statute. Their justification, not surprisingly, is Think of the Children! — specifically, the children who are victims of sex trafficking. The state Attorneys General do not explain why it is necessary to create an exception encompassing all state laws on whatever subject in order to address child sex trafficking.

What could possibly go wrong?

I mean, sure, this means that the proprietors of web sites can be prosecuted if one of their commenters says something that local police construe as a threat — as in the case of Justin Carter, prosecuted and jailed and stuck in solitary confinement for a stupid but clearly non-serious rhetorical flourish about an online game.

And, sure, some police departments think that satire is "cyberstalking," like the Renton Police Department, which sought search warrants to investigate cartoons making fun of the police. Sure, under the language sought by the Attorneys General, the police could pursue the hosts of such satire as well as the content-creators.

And sure, all sorts of local jurisdictions — and even states — have vague, broad laws forbidding speech, such as speech by electronic means that "annoys, ridicules, and disparages." Sure, blogs and forums and other sites could become criminally liable under those laws for the actions of their commenters.

And sure, some states have criminal defamation statutes, and on occasion some prosecutors have fallen so far as to obtain search warrants to investigate clearly satirical blogs. Sure, the Attorneys General plan would make that more likely.

Sure, some cops have a very broad view of what constitutes "harassment" and a willingness to use their power to threaten people who, for instance, leave negative Yelp reviews. Sure, the Attorneys General plan would let them threaten web sites as well as users.

And sure, courts across the country occasionally impose patently unconstitutional protective orders forbidding people from writing about specified subjects at all; under the regime proposed by the Attorneys General, web sites might be held liable for contempt along with their users if they allowed a user to address a subject in violation of such an abusive order.

And sure, under the Attorneys General plan, I will have to evaluate each demand or threat from local authorities across the United States, evaluate the laws of distant and unfamiliar jurisdictions, consider how judges and juries of other states might view me of my commenters leave disfavored speech, and risk financial ruin. Sure, the most rational response will often be to simply yield to criminal threats — whether from police or even from individuals threatening to make reports to police — rather than face criminal consequences to provide a forum for free expression. Sure, risk-adverse companies will be particularly likely to yield to threats.

But surely we can trust state and local law enforcement to wield this power responsibly, right?

I mean, sure, prosecutors are largely immune to any consequences for misconduct, and police use whatever tools available to them to attack expression they don't like. But we can trust law enforcement.

Can't we?

67 Comments

The First Amendment Protects Satire And Rhetoric! lol j/k

Law, Politics & Current Events

A nineteen-year-old has been jailed since March 27, 2013. He's been beaten — by other inmates, allegedly. He's been subjected to solitary confinement, sometimes stripped naked. The authorities have rejected calls for his release on a reasonable bail his family could possibly afford. All of this has happened because he wrote something online that concerned or offended or enraged the state.

What's that? Syria? Saudi Arabia?

No. Texas.

Continue Reading »

113 Comments

California Voters Think of The Children, Not So Much Of Free Speech Or Common Sense

Law, Politics & Current Events

If you got busted for streaking 20 years ago in college, should you have to notify the police if you comment at Popehat? If you had sex with your just-shy-of-sixteen-years-old girlfriend when you were seventeen, should you have to notify the police if you open a Twitter account?

Apparently the voters of California think so.

My fellow Californians gave a huge victory to Proposition 35, the cynically pitched "Human Trafficking" proposition. Along with increasing the penalties for various "human trafficking" crimes — more on that in a minute — the proposition requires registered sex offenders to disclose the following information when they register:

(4)A list of any and all Internet identifiers established or used by the person.
(5) A list of any and all Internet service providers used by the person.

In addition, it requires them to update that registration:

If any person who is required to register pursuant to the Act adds or changes his or her account with an Internet service provider or adds or changes an Internet identifier, the person shall send written notice of the addition or change to the law enforcement agency or agencies with which he or she is currently registered within 24 hours. The law enforcement agency or agencies shall make this information available to the Department of Justice. Each person to whom this subdivision applies at the time this subdivision becomes effective shall immediately provide the information required by this subdivision.

Read literally, if you're a registered sex offender, and you want to leave a comment on Popehat under the name "Bob,' or open a Twitter account, or leave a comment on the site of a newspaper or network, you've got to report the name you use to the police, in writing, within 24 hours. This means, among other things, that registered sex offenders can't comment anonymously on the internet — in, for instance, a discussion of whether sex offender laws are just.

There are First Amendment problems with that requirement right out of the gate. They are compounded by the fact that sex offender laws — the processes by which we put people on sex offender registries, and keep them there — are, in a word, perverted. They sweep up not just rapists and child molesters, but boyfriends and girlfriends convicted of statutory rape and people convicted of minor crimes questionably classified as sex crimes. There's no appetite to change how the system works, because the incantation Think of the Children! drowns out all rational thought in our culture. This is especially true when we engage in lazy categorical thinking about sex offenders.

Fortunately some people are fighting back. Yesterday the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed suit to block the portion of the law requiring registered sex offenders to report their internet providers and online handles. The litigants are registered sex offenders whose offenses had nothing to do with the internet. A federal judge issued an injunction blocking the online-disclosure portions of the law yesterday. You can imagine how that's going to be portrayed in the media.

I applaud the EFF and ACLU for pursuing this.

But it's only the First Amendment angle, and the raw idiocy of making all sex offenders report every online handle, that will get this lawsuit any support. The rest of the proposition won't get any real scrutiny. There are questions to be asked: were existing sentences too short? Will increasing sentences for these crimes really reduce crime or protect anyone? Does the proposition really address a need, or does it just add more laws onto a situation already addressed by existing criminal laws? Will the broad power of the proposition be used in a principled manner to attack real traffickers, or could it be abused and used against people who more closely resemble victims themselves?

We don't ask those questions in America. If someone says "let's add this law to criminalize this bad thing," we say "hell yes!" uncritically. When someone says "let's toughen sentences on these bad people," we say "yeah! the bastards!" And when anyone invokes "for the children" — well, nothing above our brain stems are in the mix at all. The most rabidly anti-government among us clamor for more criminal laws, longer sentences, more government power, more discretion for police and prosecutors.

That's not how a free people should act.

Edited to add: In the comments, Ed Borg suggests that the two scenarios in my parade-of-horribles opening paragraph are inapt because those particular offenses would not require registration under California law. That's the peril of starting with a rhetorical flourish. But the point made in the linked Jacob Sullum article — that registration law is unprincipled and perverse — remains, as does the core First Amendment issue.

71 Comments

Inclination, Action, and Justice: Gawker's Pedophilia Article and the Angry Reactions To It

Effluvia

If I snuck up on Gawker editor Cord Jefferson and struck him on the head with a chessboard, no serious person would say that we "played chess." If I jumped out of a dark alley and threw hand-carved rooks and bishops at him, nobody would say that I had "started a game of chess" with him.

Yet in his controversial article "Born This Way: Sympathy and Science for Those Who Want To Have Sex With Children," Cord Jefferson uses equally inappropriate terms to describe equally one-sided sexual aggression against children. Note the language in his opening paragraph, in which he tells the tale of a man named Terry who abused a child in his care. The emphasis is mine:

It's not easy to listen to Terry talk about the time he had sex with a seven-year-old girl. But after his psychotherapist put us in touch, he agreed to lay it all out for me during a phone call and email, and I was enthralled the way one might stare at a man falling from a bridge. Terry is 38, a small-business owner, and deeply religious—he ends all our correspondence by saying, "Blessings to you, Cord"—but back then when it happened Terry was 20 and a meth head. He was living with his then-wife, his marriage to whom had made him the co-guardian of her two nieces and a nephew. The one niece was a baby, but the other was seven, and it wasn't long before Terry, addicted and in a marriage he calls "abusive," fell for his niece and began a sexual relationship with her.

Consenting people — people capable of consent — "have sex." A thirty-eight-year-old man does not "have sex" with a seven-year-old girl; he rapes or molests her. To say that they "had sex" or "began a sexual relationship" is to adopt the minimizing, distorting language child abusers and their apologists, who are notorious for justifying abuse by attributing consent and co-equal participation to children.

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66 Comments

Be Thankful And Fearful And Know Your Place, Citizen

Culture, Politics & Current Events

Free-Range Kids offers a story of a man briefly detained by a police officer because (allegedly) somebody reported him as a potential kidnapper of his own daughter, who was pulling at his hand as they walked:

The cop gets out of his car, says “Sir, please step away from the child,” then proceeds to crouch down and ask her if “everything is okay.”

After re-asking a few times, getting a more and more nervous “yes” each time, he stands up and informs me that someone had called 911 reporting what looked like a young girl being abducted. My daughter and I both explained what was really happening, and not only did he not even apologize, he chastised ME for not being, and I quote verbatim here, “More thankful someone was watching out for my daughter.”

As numerous commenters at Free-Range Kids and at Reason point out, a competent officer could have handled that encounter in a far less intrusive manner. But the problem is not merely that the officer used authority and the threat of force where friendliness would have done the trick: it's the officer's entitled parting shot, the suggestion that we mere civilians should be thankful for the irrational fears of our fellows and the willingness of police to overreact to them. We should be happy that people will call the cops on us because our children yank at our hands as we walk, and grateful that police will detain us as a result.

I've been lucky on this one so far: though my kids don't look like me, nobody's called the cops on me yet. I've gotten odd looks and suspicious stares in public, but no police interventions. Other people with multiracial families are not so lucky, and, like the man in the Free Range Kids story, have encountered law enforcement entitlement and resentment of criticism.

There's a few problematical trends going on here. The first is the sick culture of fear, encouraged by the media (because fear is lucrative, and accurate contextual reporting is hard) and by law enforcement and politicians (because fear leads to more power for them). That culture has led us to accept, uncritically, the existence of an ever-growing level of danger to ourselves and our children, even if actual evidence supports the opposite. The second problematical trend is the culture of self-esteem and self-congratulation — the notion that our feelings (including feelings of irrational fear and suspicion) are to be coddled and celebrated and treated as legitimate whether or not they are premised on fact. Law enforcement and politicians deliberately harness this phenomenon through the "if you see something, say something" campaign, which explicitly encourages people to indulge in flights of fancy about how innocent and innocuous events might be sinister. The third problematical trend is the "Think of the Children!" mentality, the regrettably widely accepted premise that things done to protect children ought not be questioned, even if the things are utterly irrational and have no actual salutary effect on the well-being of children. Finally, the fourth problematical trend is the culture of entitlement among cops — the feeling that mere civilians ought to take what they dish out, shut up, and like it.

Anyone who has ever walked with a young child knows that young children struggle, tug against your hand, yank your arm, and generally behave in a deranged fashion. The cops, hysterics, and Mrs. Grundys of the world want us to accept the premise better safe than sorry — the premise that it's a good thing that some person saw a little girl tugging at a man's arm and vaulted to the conclusion "kidnapper!", and a good thing that a police officer followed up with a show of authority and force. Too many people agree. But I dissent. I don't think it's a good thing. I think it promotes dependence on government, increased law enforcement power, and the normalization of irrationality. I think that the facts do not support the supposition that hordes of kids will be abducted if Mrs. Grundy exercises self-control and critical thinking, or if the cops do. I think that we have been terrified into a lamentably cringing and servile condition. I am not "thankful that someone is looking out" for my kids; I am disgusted that someone wants my kids to be as irrationally fearful and dependent as they are.

102 Comments

The Shawano School District of Wisconsin Teaches Bad Citizenship

Irksome, Politics & Current Events

"Liberty," said Learned Hand, "lies in the hearts of men and women. When it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it."

Learned Hand was quite right — if people don't support basic legal norms like freedom of expression and due process of law, no legal systems will be sufficient to enforce those norms. They will wither. But how is the appetite for liberty born in our hearts? Some choose to believe that it is an inherent aspiration of humanity. I don't think that history, ancient or recent, supports that. Rather, I think that liberty is a cultural value, carefully cultivated by example and education. Good American citizenship is characterized by fidelity to shared taught values, and a willingness to support them and teach them to others.

Like any value, liberty can also be suppressed. People — especially young people — can be taught to scorn it.

Right now, the Shawano School District is Wisconsin is teaching students to scorn free expression. The Shawano School District, through its leaders, is teaching bad American citizenship.

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17 Comments

What Law Enforcement Thinks of Us

Politics & Current Events

What, you might ask, do head shops and Pedobear stickers have in common?

They both help illustrate what law enforcement thinks about "civilians" and about our role in society.

Dateline: Washington D.C. Via Radley Balko, we learn of a police raid on smoke shops, including one called Capitol Hemp. So far, so banal — another pointlessly mastubatory gesture in the financially and socially ruinous War on Drugs. What's notable about this particular raid is that the police, in drafting their affidavit of probable cause in support of a search warrant, argued that display of materials about constitutional rights was probative of criminal activity and criminal intent:

4. While your Affiant was looking at the smoking devices U/C [redacted] observed a DVD that was for sale entitled "10 Rules for Dealing with Police". The DVD gave the following listed topics that were covered as:

A. Deal with traffic stops, street stops and police at your door.

B. Know your rights and maintain your cool, and;

C. Avoid common police tricks and prevent humiliating searches.

Your Affiant notes that while this DVD is informative for any citizen, when introduced into a store that promotes the use of a controlled substance this DVD becomes a tool for deceiving law enforcement to keep from being arrested. The typical citizen would not need to know detailed information as to US Supreme Court case law regarding search and seizure because they are not transporting illegal substances in fear of being caught.

Yes, that's the same 10 Rules publication that we wrote about here last year — an utterly straightforward, inoffensive exposition about protecting your rights (and your safety) when interacting with law enforcement. The video tells people that they have a right — a right set forth in the United States Constitution — to remain silent and to refuse to give consent to searches. Taking a page from modern pro-statist "what do you have to hide?" rhetoric, the police say that a typical citizen "would not need to know" such information and that it is intended to "deceive law enforcement."

Of course, this is utter horseshit. Normal citizens who haven't done a damn thing wrong get arrested and abused and sometimes tased or shot by police all the time. Law enforcement would prefer that you lie back and take it, that you adopt the unprincipled and insipid "law and order" mindset and regard constitutional rights with the suspicion and contempt reserved in popular culture for hippies and ACLU lawyers. Law enforcement loves a servile populace.

The wished-for servility is not restricted to the sphere of constitutional rights. The sort of people who run your government would prefer that you not expose their justifications to the cold hard light of reason or scientific inquiry, either. This is hardly restricted to law enforcement — who hasn't seen a politician who refuses to go beyond his or her talking points in responding to probing questions about policy? But in law enforcement — in the ritualistic invocation of the magic words Think of the Children! — the demand for unquestioning acceptance of moronism reaches its peak.

This brings us to Pedobear.

If you have been on the internet much, you've probably seen references to Pedobear — a crass, semi-satirical, semi-gross reference to pedophilia in culture, sometimes employed to criticize the culture's grotesque sexualization of children, sometimes to make light of abuse. Pedobear is a meme, a reference, an internet in-joke.

At least, that's what people with a clue — people who habitually employ critical thinking — realize.

But law enforcement is notoriously incapable of separating internet memes from reality. That's why some local law enforcement officials have put out "warnings" about Pedobear, suggesting that references to him may denote actual pedophile activity, and that Pedobear stickers are a method for actual pedophiles to communicate with each other. In terms of credulity, this is roughly the equivalent of the Department of Education decrying a startling decline in grammar amongst photographed cats.

In New Mexico, the Attorney General's Office issued such a warning about Pedobear, leading first to gullible media warnings and then to embarrassed and resentful backtracking by the media . In response, Phil Sisneros, communications director for the Attorney General Gary King, wrote the ultimate apologia for stubborn irrationality in law enforcement:

For the record, of course our investigators know that the Pedobear symbology began as an Internet meme joke, poking fun at pedophiles, and yes, we know that anyone who has the bad taste to display a Pedobear symbol is not necessarily a pedophile…emphasis on the word "necessarily." If you are a parent of a three year old, can you really take a chance? This is most assuredly NOT fear-mongering by "well meaning government officials," as one journalist seemed to wonder about. Law enforcement personnel across the country know about Pedobear, they are also concerned. This is the Attorney General's Office simply trying to make New Mexicans aware that the Pedobear symbol is out there and we think the general public, especially those who are not clued in to today's Internet culture, deserve to know what the Pedobear symbol is about and how it is interpreted by law enforcement. Individuals can make their own conclusions as to the relative importance of this information. You don't have to drink the Kool-Aid to know what's in it, right? Lastly, if the Attorney General's Office is lambasted for being too cautious by doing anything and everything we can to help protect children from pedophiles…we're OK with that.

Remember, "it's for the children" — like "remember 9/11" and "War on Terror" — means never having to say you're sorry. It means never having to offer plausible explanations that can withstand rational inquiry. If you don't agree, what kind of parent — what kind of American — are you?

You have rights. Those rights include the right against self-incrimination, the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, and a right to think critically. Exercise them — even though a substantial segment of law enforcement thinks that doing so makes you a bad citizen.

16 Comments

State Legislator Quote Of The Day

Politics & Current Events

"We found out later on that, Constitutionally, you can not ban a type of music," said Ma. "Plus, I, like my opponents said, I didn't really know what was going on."

–Assemblywoman and Speaker Pro Tem Fiona Ma

19 Comments

Friday Links: Your Government At Work Edition

Politics & Current Events

Rodney Dangerfield Should Have Run For Mayor: Via Marc Randazza, I see that Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup thinks that people petitioning the local government should be compelled by law to show "respect." Mayor Walken alleges that City Attorney Mike Rankin told him that a law requiring that petitions be respectful would pass First Amendment muster. Hey Mayor Walkup — with all respect, you're a douchebag and a moral weakling. And with all respect to Mike Rankin, if he told Mayor Walkup that the respect requirement is constitutional, he's incompetent.

Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been, A Goth?: Via Free Range Kids, I see that if your kid cuts her finger in shop class (something that happens when messing around with tools, you know), she may be subjected to an inquisition and forced to sign statements guaranteeing that she is not a self-cutter:

They forced this girl to fill out a range of forms stating that she did not cut herself on purpose, and that she would pledge NOT to start cutting herself on purpose in the future.

The Government Knows Best: Via SayUncle, here is a story of a judicial decision about food freedom that is all the more appalling because it is probably a correct exposition of the state of our Wickard v. Filburn law:

“no, Plaintiffs do not have a fundamental right to own and use a dairy cow or a dairy herd;”

“no, Plaintiffs do not have a fundamental right to consume the milk from their own cow;”

“no, Plaintiffs do not have a fundamental right to produce and consume the foods of their choice…”

I've Always Thought That Interpretive Dance Was Shovel-Ready: Finally, courtesy of , a story about how stimulus dollars were used. As reflected on Recovery.org, you — the taxpayer — spent $762,372 to create 1.5 jobs doing this:

The PI and her team of technologists, choreographers and artists will work together to define an evolving system that assists in the design and production of interactive dance performances with real-time audience interaction. The Dance.Draw system will enable dancers' motions, tracked via small RF transmitters worn in satin cuffs, to act as input streams that can be flexibly applied as control parameters for interactive visualizations. The system will log dancers' motions and will be able to composite video of the dancers with different visualizations, enabling post-hoc analysis of the choreography and exploration of prospective mappings between the motion and the projected media. This will allow choreographers to explore interactive dance without always having a full cast of dancers present. In addition, it will enable other stakeholders, such as artists and musicians, to experiment offline with their media and adjust how these interplay with the choreography.

Leaving aside the thorny question of the role of the government in the arts, let me ask this: if stimulus money is supposed to create jobs to stimulate the economy, can we really not do better than paying half a million dollars per job?

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Caylee Anthony's Useful Idiots

Law, Politics & Current Events

I've said it before, and I'll say it again — to most people and institutions, the purpose of a criminal justice system is not to test the government's accusations, but to deliver a preordained result that matches our expectations and prejudices.

The acquittal of Casey Anthony has produced a torrent of outrage supporting that proposition. The Mommy Mob's reaction illustrates how high-profile cases can drive people to become the useful idiots of the security state and the unwitting shills of the media.

First, take law enforcement and government. Frequent readers know that one of our favorite topics — captured under the tag Think of the Children! — is the way that politicians and nanny-staters manipulate our anxieties about our children to impose increasing restrictions upon our freedom. You'll see new examples every day. Note, for instance, politicians arguing that the existence of a tiny minority of child pornographers justifies tracking the internet use of hundreds of millions of innocent Americans. It's for the chiiiiildrun, they tell us, reasonably confident that our brain will turn off when they say so.

Casey Anthony's acquittal has produced a surge of exactly the sort of mindset that the government craves. That mindset is captured perfectly by one of the most vocal anti-Casey Anthony think-of-the-children folks on Twitter, who (like many of her ilk) is outraged that some people think that the howls for "Caylee's Law" are misguided. She says this:

How can a law that protects children be WRONG? How can it be questionable?

Bingo. That's exactly what law enforcement and the politicians want you to think: if a law is presented as "for the children," it must be beyond question. if you think that it's restricted by subject matter to the Anthony trial, think again. When Kevin Underhill wrote a perfectly reasonable post suggesting that 14-year-olds shouldn't be branded sex offenders for life for sticking their ass into somebody's face, and that the Caylee's-Law mentality is what allows that sort of thing to happen, the usual suspects pounced:

@loweringthebar you've got 2 STOP publishing articles like this on YAHOO goo.gl/eW04T coz I promise u WE WILL #FIGHT4CAYLEE !!!!

You might think that politicians and other state actors hate it when a Casey Anthony gets acquitted. You'd be wrong. The acquittal of someone like Casey Anthony — accused of killing a cute white girl, and worse yet, accused of being a slut and a party girl — is an opportunity for the state to get useful idiots to drive its favorite narratives. Those narratives are "when the government charges you with something, that means you are guilty" and "government witnesses are credible; defense witnesses are not" and "defense lawyers deal in deceit; prosecutors deal in truth" and "a juror's job is to convict the guilty", and so on. Th Mommy Mob is flogging those narratives like crazy. They devote web sites to excoriating the jurors and suggesting that they ought to be prosecuted for some sort of fraud or dereliction of duty. They attack the defense attorneys, suggesting that they ought not be paid and arguing that the State Bar ought to investigate them. They speculate about what citizens might be associated with Casey Anthony and then post contact information for those citizens. They call on their flying monkeys to harass the judiciary. They demand retrial of Casey Anthony based twisted interpretations of the Dual Sovereign Doctrine.

In short, Caylee's ghouls carry the government's water for them. Their messages are clear: jurors, if you fail to convict when the mob thinks you should, you will be identified, reviled, and quite possibly harassed. Judges, if you fail to rule the way the mob wants, the mob will jam your phone lines and deluge you with bizarre emails. Defendants, if your trial ends up in anything but the result the mob demands, expect to be hunted for as long as you occupy the mob's imagination. Defense lawyers, your job is to be hated and to be attacked if you are successful. All of those messages support the security state — the viewpoint that the government knows best and that the government's claims and accusations must be accepted to keep order. The government's labels must be accepted uncritically.

Second, there's the media. The media has made big bucks off of Caylee Anthony's disappearance and death. Nancy Grace and her shouty ilk have discovered a way to monetize the easy outrage of the chronic daytime-TV-watchers and trial-followers, turning frothing hatred of the "tot mom" into advertizing dollars. Though Casey Anthony's acquittal looks, at first blush, like a defeat for those who so smugly proclaimed her guilt on cable, the opposite is true. It's a bonanza. A conviction would have turned off the money-faucet quickly. But an acquittal — that they can milk for months or years, continuing the lucrative circus that was the trial.

The loudest Casey-haters, with an abject and ironic lack of reflection, have now thrown themselves behind a boycott movement, vowing to boycott any entity that pays Casey Anthony to write or talk or appear. A boycott is a perfectly valid First Amendment avenue. But it's astounding to see the mob wield it without apparent shame. If Casey Anthony were like 99 out of 100 accused murderers, her story wouldn't be worth a nickel to any media outlets. But she's not — because the boycott crowd accepted the media narrative about her and followed her as the latest "trial of the century." The madding crowd that now cries "boycott" is the very reason that her story is worth money — because angry people follow her obsessively. That's why calls for boycotts often result in a surge of sales for the communication the boycotters are attacking. It's possible, perhaps even likely, that every angry tweet and blog post by the Boycott-Casey crowd will put money in Casey's pocket. Whether it does or not, the media will continue to make money, as the boycott itself becomes the latest chapter in the lucrative Casey Anthony story. The mob is the media's foil.

Imagine, for a moment, if all of that outrage could he harnessed and directed not against the acquittal of one accused defendant, but against the ruinous war on drugs or police misconduct or any number of other causes that don't amount to being government's fluffer. But the mob, by its nature, is conservative. And useful idiots are, by their nature, only useful to the bad guys.

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"Liberal" Does Not Reliably Mean "Respectful of the Rights of the Accused"

Law

Imagine this scenario:

You're arrested and charged with possession of child pornography. You're stunned. What the hell did you have in your possession that could possibly be child pornography? Could the state be misrepresenting the nature of innocent pictures of your kids at the beach? Could someone have planted materials on your hard drive, using your unsecured wi-fi network? There's only one way to find out — thank God for your due process right to a vigorous defense. You and your attorney demand to inspect the evidence — to see the alleged child porn so that you can be ready to challenge the government's proof at trial, and even have a defense expert review it to counter the government's expert, who may be flat wrong in identifying the materials as child pornography.

Not so fast, says the state. Merely possessing child pornography is a crime. Moreover, every time anyone looks at these pictures, the children in them are re-victimized. Therefore, we can't allow you to examine the materials to prepare your defense. You'll just have to see them for the first time at trial, like the jury. Don't worry — we're the state, you can trust our judgment when we accuse people of crimes.

Fortunately, that scenario does not illustrate the actual law. In real life, the accused has the right to review the evidence against him. But how you feel about that scenario can help to determine whether you lean liberal or libertarian — whether you are suspicious of state power in all instances, or whether you trust the state and look to its firm hand when it comes to hot-button issues, like OMG THINK OF THE CHILDREN!

We've been conditioned by the culture to expect that "liberal" and "supportive of due process and fundamental fairness to all people accused of crimes" go hand-in-hand. It's a lie.

Take the scenario above. It's remarkably close to an actual case that inspired this revolting and insipid Gawker post by Brian Moylan about the criminal case against Marc Gilbert in Washington State. Gilbert stands accused by the state of terrible crimes:

Marc Gilbert is accused of sexually assaulting young boys and videotaping the abuse.

It's undisputed that the videotapes are material evidence relating to the crimes, and apparently the state wants to use them to prosecute Gilbert. The Washington media — and Brian Moylan at Gawker — are outraged that this means that Gilbert, who is representing himself, is allowed to view the videotapes — outraged that the matter does not end like the scenario above, with the accused denied access to the evidence For The Children. Quoth Moylan:

See, Gilbert is acting as his own lawyer in the trial, so as his defense attorney, he needs to be able to review all the evidence in the case. Since the evidence in this case is footage of him allegedly raping boys, then he gets to review that evidence to his heart's content. And since his access to this evidence will only go on for the duration of the trial, you can expect this thing to drag on for as long as Gilbert can make it. This is how justice gets served.

(Emphasis added, government-fluffing douchebaggery in original.)

The government — like the rabble of commenters at Gawker — view it as a "loophole" that a person accused of a terrible crime is entitled to review the evidence against him:

The prosecutor and the sheriff say the results of the legal loophole are sickening in this case, but say the state Supreme Court has ruled in Gilbert's favor.

"Make no mistake — I don't like it," said Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor. "But it is not my choice whether to do it or not to do it. There's no question that I don't like it. There's no question that this makes me grind my teeth."

"We don't like it. We don't want to do it, but we have to follow the law. The fix here is to change the law," said Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist.

Lindquist isn't just blowing smoke. This is exactly the sort of scenario that the state uses to expand its power and reduce the rights of individuals accused of crime — the sort of scenario that makes citizens swallow the premise that hey, maybe it's fine if the state can accuse people of crimes based on secret unreviewable evidence.

The media is frequently described as having a "liberal bias." Gawker is described as having one. For some meanings of "liberal," that's true — but only if we accept that "liberal" involves Nancy-Grace-style, law-and-order, hostile-to-rights-of-the-accused drivel.

Edited to add: It's even worse at True Crime Reports.

Edited to add: Here's an exchange I had with a commenter at TCR. Are both of us being sarcastic? I can only hope.

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Harvard Researchers Also Know What Is Best For Your Children. Sort Of. Maybe.

Law, Politics & Current Events

Yesterday I talked about how the Colorado Department of Public Health knows, in creepy-abusive-spouse detail, what is best for your kids. Sometimes the government realizes all by itself that it is a better parent than you are. But other times the government has this epiphany as a result from prodding from its partners in academia.

Take, for instance, Harvard. Harvard has long been a source of Deep Thinkers with Important Ideas about government's role in society, leading to examples of well-thought-out government intervention like the Vietnam War. We've discussed the sort of insight that comes out of Harvard before.

Today, courtesy of the redoubtable Walter Olson, I saw a new instance inflaming the news media and blogosphere today: two Harvard researchers have written a commentary in the Journal of the American Medical Association called "State Intervention in Life-Threatening Obesity" suggesting that obese children should, in some instances, be removed from their parents by the state for the good of the children. The Harvard folk are David S. Ludwig and Lindsey Murtagh (hat tip to Future of Capitalism for those links).

My first instinct, like that of Walter, is outrage and contempt and all the other pulse-elevating feelings on the I-must-blog-about-this spectrum. My second instinct, though, is to ask this: exactly what are these Harvard researchers advocating?

I knew in advance not to expect to learn much from the news media. Like legal reporting, science reporting is so inadequate that it is the butt of jokes in comics — at least the sort of comics read by the sort of people who care about the quality of science reporting.

My expectation was not thwarted. The reporting on the article was vague and ambiguous and failed either (1) to educate me about the exact scope of the custody-meddling that Ludwig and Murtagh are advocating, and (2) to convince me that this wasn't the sort of OMG MAD SCIENCE! reporting that the comics linked above lampoon.

JAMA does not provide full text of its articles online. I was therefore thwarted in my attempt to figure out whether Ludwig and Murtagh are respectable clinicians or nasty totalitarians or something in between. I was ready to write about this anyway. Then I thought how can I complain about lousy science reporting while perpetrating it myself? So I bit the bullet and paid $30 to download the JAMA article. I comfort myself that (1) JAMA is, in general, a good cause, (2) this isn't the stupidest thing I will have spent money on this week, and (3) the Popehat promise is that we read things like JAMA so you don't have to.

I was concerned that the JAMA article might be beyond my little political-science-major brain. I should not have worried. "State Intervention in Life-Threatening Obesity" is a puff piece suitable for a popular magazine or newspaper and largely free of substance. With footnotes, it's two two-column magazine pages long. It does little but set up the existence of childhood obesity in America, discuss in brief some of the health risks of such obesity, note that existing law generally allows some state intervention in parenting choices when a child's health is at risk, and opine quite generally that in some extreme cases custodial interference by the state may be warranted. This is as specific as it gets:

In severe instances of childhood obesity, removal from the home may be justifiable from a legal standpoint because of imminent health risks and the parents’ chronic failure to address medical problems. Indeed, it may be unethical to subject such children to an invasive and irreversible procedure without first considering foster care. Nevertheless, state intervention would clearly not be desirable or practical, and probably not be legally justifiable,
for most of the approximately 2 million children in the United States with a BMI at or beyond the 99th percentile. Moreover, the quality of foster care varies
greatly; removal from the home does not guarantee improved physical health, and substantial psychosocial morbidity may ensue. Thus, the decision to pursue this option must be guided by carefully defined criteria such as those proposed by Varness et al, with less intrusive methods used whenever possible.

In short, Ludwig and Murtagh seem to be doing little more than attempting to "start a conversation" about when obese children should be removed from their parents by the state. For specific diagnostic criteria, they punt to an article in Pediatrics called Childhood Obesity and Medical Neglect; that article is available fully online through the link. That article is fairly cautious:

In our opinion, 3 conditions must be met to justify state intervention, that is, a high likelihood of serious imminent harm, a reasonable likelihood that coercive state intervention will result in effective treatment, and the absence of alternative options to address the problem. In the case of childhood obesity, it is not the mere presence or degree of obesity but rather the presence of comorbid conditions that is critical for the determination of serious
imminent harm. All 3 criteria are met only in very limited cases, that is, the subset of obese children who have very serious comorbid conditions and for whom all alternative options have been exhausted. In these limited cases, a trial of removal from the home to protect the child may be indicated.

The linked Pediatrics article gives some examples of types of health risks.

Supporters of this research could reasonably argue that this standard is not really different from what courts and child authorities would apply if children were facing a risk other than obesity. In short, to the extent that media coverage of this article suggests that Harvard researchers say that the government should take your kids away if they are fat, that coverage is woefully deficient.

But that doesn't let Ludwig and Murtagh off the hook.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating; the proof of the regulatory scheme is in its drafting and implementation. There are good reasons to be highly suspicious of any social movement — driven by medical professionals or not — to encourage interference with parental custody.

The medical community is an increasingly popular vector for social agendas and state control of the individual. Norms about government control start narrow in theory — like "in the most extreme cases, some morbidly obese children facing imminent serious health consequences might be taken from their parents' homes if those parents refuse to address the health problems." In practice, though, the norms get broadened and twisted to justify social, political, and religious agendas, to increase government fiefdoms, and to wage cultural wars. The norms are implemented not by the knowledgeable professionals who envisioned them, but by bureaucrats of mixed capacity and motives under regrettable conditions. The result, amongst actual people, is inevitable: norms permitting limited state intervention into the lives of citizens are capriciously and maliciously applied, usually in a disproportionate fashion against the unpopular or the powerless. Moreover, when the state trains and equips to exercise power upon some justification, it tends to see that justification whether or not it exists. In our society, the natural and probable result of normalizing state custodial interference of extremely obese kids is not sparing application; the natural and probable result is abuse and misapplication.

Ludwig and Murtagh may well take the Beckian stance that they are "just asking questions" — simply raising the topic for greater discussion, not advocating any hasty broadening of state power over citizens' children. I interpret their brief column as exactly that — an attempt to start the discussion and lend JAMA's credibility to the proposition that forcible removal of obese children is supported by medical academia at the highest level. But the state always thirsts for such power, and is always too eager to get academic support for seizing it. Sooner or later, Ludwig and Murtagh will be cited in some local bureaucrat's application to take a child from his or her parents. Will that child meet the narrow diagnostic criteria that Ludwig and Murtagh have in mind? Perhaps — and perhaps not. The strong possibility that those footnote-referenced diagnostic criteria will be neither understood nor met is, I submit, a factor that Ludwig and Murtagh have not weighed adequately. They have started the dialogue, but distant, barely-supervised and poorly-restrained state officials will finish it for them. Ludwig and Murtagh might also have suggested that parents could buy vicious attack dogs to scare their fat children away from the refrigerator; though the dogs could be trained, in theory, to do so in a safe and appropriate manner, the natural and probable result is blood on the floor.

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