Two super-sized adult male U.S. Secret Service (“S.S.”) agents banged on the front door at 14 year-old Julia Wilson’s home last Thursday during school hours, but Julia wasn’t home. Predictably (except to the S.S. agents), the straight-A student was in her microbiology class at school.
But Julia’s mother, Kirstie, was home. When she opened her front door, she was a little taken aback, not only by the sizes of the agents and the official nature of the visit, but also by their questions and demeanor after she welcomed them inside.
The S.S. agents told Kirstie that they were investigating her daughter’s role in setting up a MySpace Web page. In particular, they were troubled because the Web page included the creation of art (pictured above) that the agents felt was extremely threatening to the life of the President of the United States.
The agents told Kirstie that since the art included the words, “Kill Bush,” and since it was accessible to anyone on the Internet, there was a very strong likelihood that someone-possibly a terrorist from a foreign country-might see the image and be inspired to act upon it. Thus, they reasoned, even if Julia only meant to be funny, the art put the President in grave danger. Many people are saying, “Nonsense!”
The agents proceeded to ask Kirstie if she or her husband were members of any organizations whose goal is to overthrow the U.S. government. Kirstie assured them that neither she nor her husband, Jim Moose (a Boalt Hall graduate and name partner at a reputable Sacramento law firm), were extremists of any sort.
The agents seemed anxious to speak with Julia, but after peering around the upscale Land Park house a bit (for Julia?) and receiving assurance from Kirstie that Julia would be home from school in an hour, the agents agreed to return later-at least that’s what they led Kirstie to believe.
The S.S. agents left and made a beeline directly to Julia’s school, C.K. McClatchy High School, the alma mater of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy (’54) (and my mother (’52)).
Notwithstanding that Julia posted the artwork on MySpace when she was 13 and removed it last summer, and that the President had come to Sacramento twice while Julia’s art remained inconsequential, the agents had suddenly determined that time was of the essence. They ordered school officials to have Julia promptly removed from class and brought to the school office, where they proceeded to grill her about her art.
‘Bout that art
In the context in which the art was presented on a 13 year-old’s MySpace website, many attorneys, including my wife and me, agree that no reasonable person could regard the image as a credible threat to the life of the President. Indeed, the image is lawful in every respect and is protected by the 1st Amendment (that’s why we can show it here).
Aside from the fact that it’s Constitutionally protected, many people have said that they found it to be funny, and in that respect–heaven forbid–appealing.
Call me risky, but I’m willing to wager double or nothing that a 4 ft. x 8 ft. reproduction of this piece at an anti-war demonstration would cause people driving by to honk, laugh, wave and give thumbs up all day long. I think it might even be a smash, so much so that the t-shirts would sell faster than they could be printed.
I don’t know about you, but I think Julia’s art makes a political statement that the vast majority of the people on the planet Earth would find appealing, albeit in a humorous way (nudge, nudge).
Recently, when Al Franken came to the Crest Theater in Sacramento, I was there with a large sign that said, “Impeach Bush.” When a couple of old guys (who wore the hats of WWII veterans) walked by me, one said, “Impeach? Hell, kill the bastard!” Several people standing nearby broke out in laughter. I laughed too, just like I did when I first saw Julia’s art.
Seriously folks, this kind of thing is not unpopular humor. Of course, maybe that’s precisely what concerns the S.S.
There’s a difference between deciding whether something is right or wrong and deciding whether something’s unlawful. Julia’s parents know that Julia did nothing unlawful, but they didn’t like the image because it included the word kill. Even Julia decided, long before the S.S. ever contacted her, that she didn’t like the image with that word. Although right or wrong in this case was simply a matter of taste, we don’t need to look too far for people who routinely and quite comfortably use the word kill.
Our young students might not be so quick to use the word kill if our political leaders would stop using it in their rhetoric. A major battle between the Republicans and Democrats has been to convince the public that the opposing party will be “softer on terror” than the other. To gain the public’s confidence, politicians have been trying to outnumber their opponents in the use of the word kill in their speeches.
George Bush uses the word kill in just about every speech these days. Donald Rumsfeld talks about killing. Cheney wants to kill. John Kerry says we need to capture and kill the terrorists. Bill and Hilary Clinton now routinely use kill. Virtually every major speech that any of these leaders has given lately has included the word kill.
So is it any wonder that some of the bright 13 year-olds who actually pay attention to these speeches might also start using the word?
Meanwhile, back at school
Many critics of the S.S.’ creation of a “sense of urgency” to contact Julia believe that it was tactically intended to send a chilling message to other students. Many lawyers, activists and free speech advocates believe that the goal of the S.S. was to generally deter young people from being too critical of the President. And what better way to send a chilling message to students than for the S.S. to pull a student out of class at a large public school?
In the school’s office, the S.S. agents interrogated Julia, reducing her to tears at many points. They demanded to know whether she or her parents belonged to any subversive organizations, and they often raised their voices, especially when they detected that Julia was either scared or didn’t understand their ambiguous questions.
To the extent that the agents’ actions were calculated to deter Julia’s lawful political expression, their investigative conduct infringed upon Julia’s 1st Amendment right to free speech. It is one thing to investigate a matter, but it is quite another to use the investigative process to deter lawful political expression. In this case, there is a legitimate cause for concern about the latter.
For Julia’s parents, the most troubling aspect of the investigation was the fact that the S.S. agents conducted the interrogation with Julia alone without first giving her parents an opportunity to be present. Parents in California, and throughout the U.S., have expressed similar concerns recently, particularly now that law enforcement agencies have been given such carte blanche discretion and expanded protections through legislation and Supreme Court precedent.
Two recent bills in California proposed changes in the law to require that parents have an opportunity to be present during police questioning. Neither bill was passed, but the calls for change are increasing.
I spoke with Julia and her parents last weekend, and I learned that this entire event has made them more determined than ever to draw public attention to the injustices that are being perpetrated by this corrupt administration.
Jim and Kirstie’s immediate concern related to their rights as parents to be present at the school-facilitated discussion, especially since it had the potential for significant consequences for Julia. Their broader concern, however, was about the direction this country has been headed under a Republican leadership. They plan to be more politically active now.
Similarly, Julia is now more determined than ever to organize a student anti-war group, and she is convinced that George W. Bush is the worst president ever.
Stephen Pearcy is an attorney in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org