The “Duck Dynasty” flap: a view from a non-fan of the show

Originally I was going to just let this one fly by like a black brant headed to Mexico. But I think there have been enough people vocally claiming a First Amendment violation that it’s time to weigh in.

First, in case you’ve missed this or live outside the US (many of these links will contain offensive material):

Executive summary: Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty gives an interview to GQ Magazine (owned by Conde Nast Publications, not Hearst as originally stated by one source). A+E Networks (owners of the cable channel A&E, a joint venture of Hearst Corporation and Disney-ABC Television Group, and no I have no idea why the corporate name has a plus sign instead of an ampersand) gets wind of it, the executives go nuts and place Phil Robertson on “indefinite hiatus” from the show. Right-wing fans of the show claim infringements of First Amendment free speech rights, Cracker Barrel pulls Duck Dynasty merchandise only to put it right back on the shelves after the show’s fans threaten a boycott. Finally, A+E Networks reverses the original decision, and since the show wasn’t even producing new episodes anyway, the “indefinite hiatus” amounts to no hiatus at all.

Let’s start with the original GQ interview and A+E Networks’ reaction. First, I consider Mr. Robertson’s remarks to be in egregiously poor taste. I don’t know why anyone who is on television as part of a nationally cablecast program would think it was a good idea to say these kinds of things in a magazine interview. I am forced to conclude that Mr. Robertson simply doesn’t give a shit.

So it’s not surprising that the brass at A+E Networks did what they did. And they had the right to decide who and what they wanted to air on their television network. The same way I can decide exactly what to post on my blog, and what comments make it. I’ve been pretty liberal, but I have edited comments for publication in the past.

What does surprise me is that the same largely conservative fan base is willing to attack A+E Networks for infringing on freedom of speech, as if it’s Mr. Robertson’s right to be on television. It’s not his show nor his network. It was a given that some other network somewhere would pick up either Duck Dynasty itself or start a new show starring the Robertson family and the duck call business. (Probably one of the Fox-owned networks, given the slant of Fox Noise Ch– I mean Fox News Channel.)

The latest articles I’ve read imply that A+E Networks has painted themselves into a corner, and they can’t win no matter what. Not to mention, at least one former production assistant claims the show is fake ( Which is perhaps the biggest fraud of them all, if he’s right.

A show billed as a reality show should actually reflect reality. Deadliest Catch, for example, does its best to reflect the reality of crab fishing in the Bering Sea. Minimal editing is done except to remove profanity and for legal reasons (blurring/beeping out the identifying information of boats and people who have not signed agreements to be on the show). Nothing is scripted. Cops is perhaps the gold standard in reality television; if not the first, it’s certainly the longest running series in the genre and perhaps the show that helped define it. I’m not saying “gold standard” because I like the show, but because it’s the best example of how a reality show should be made.

Reality (unscripted) television is fine. I have no problem with reality television itself. Reality game shows are fine (Survivor, The Amazing Race, Big Brother, etc). Scripted television is fine and has its place. But it’s just not right to call something a reality show when it’s really scripted. If this is what A+E Networks is doing, this is a much bigger problem, to me, than any mishandling of Mr. Robertson and his interview with GQ. I would hate to see something happen to reality television along the lines of the quiz show scandals of the 1950s. But if it takes a Congressional investigation to clean things up, then let’s have one and start the cleanup now.

Is lack of intelligence a requirement to be a judge in Illinois?

I honestly don’t know what else to conclude after reading this article than it must be a requirement to have next to zero intelligence to be a judge in Illinois. This is sort of a follow-up to the Christopher Drew case that I blogged about back in 2010 June. It involves a very similar abuse of the state’s wiretapping law.

AlterNet reports on the plight of 41-year-old Michael Allison of Bridgeport, Illinois. His crime was keeping non-working cars on his mother’s property in the nearby town of Robinson. Both cities have “eyesore” laws requiring inoperable cars to either be registered or kept in a garage. The nasty part of this is that in Illinois, registered vehicle owners can be randomly selected for liability insurance verification questionnaire mailouts, and a failure to respond to such a questionnaire results in the suspension of the registration. (In Texas, by contrast, one only needs to show proof of insurance at the time of registration and–since Texas requires it as well–annual safety inspection. Though it is technically frowned upon, in Texas one can get insurance, renew registration and/or bring the inspection current, then immediately cancel the policy.)

Anyway, Michael sued the city of Bridgeport in 2007 claiming the “eyesore” law was a violation of his civil rights and the city’s impound fees amounted to a cash grab. This resulted in local police harassment and threats of arrest over the next couple of years.

Fast forward to 2010 January. Michael requests a court reporter for his hearing and is denied. In the letter he made it clear that he would be recording the proceedings himself were his request denied–an understandable action from a citizen who feels he is being wronged by the system and merely wants to document himself for his own protection.

Quoting the story, here’s what happens next:

Just after he walked through the courthouse door the next day, Allison says Crawford County Circuit Court Judge Kimbara Harrell asked him whether he had a tape recorder in his pocket. He said yes. Harrell then asked him if it was turned on. Allison said it was. Harrell then informed the defendant that he was in violation of the Illinois wiretapping law, which makes it a Class 1 felony to record someone without his consent. “You violated my right to privacy,” the judge said.

Allison responded that he had no idea it was illegal to record public officials during the course of their work, that there was no sign or notice barring tape recorders in the courtroom, and that he brought one only because his request for a court reporter had been denied. No matter: After Harrell found him guilty of violating the car ordinance, Allison, who had no prior criminal record, was hit with five counts of wiretapping, each punishable by four to 15 years in prison. Harrell threw him in jail, setting bail at $35,000.

This is a blatant attempt at intimidation which the entire citizenship of Illinois should be ashamed of. I don’t know where Mr. Harrell (a man I believe unworthy of the title of “Judge” or “The Honorable”) gets off claiming he has some kind of privacy rights in a public courtroom, especially after Michael asked for a court reporter.

I’m not sure how Mr. Harrell became a judge. But I do know lawyers and judges are supposed to uphold the concept of equal justice for all. This abuse of a poorly written wiretapping law flies in the face of anything resembling justice.

Indeed, the story also refers to Carlos Miller’s excellent blog, Photography Is Not A Crime, which he started after being arrested on trumped-up charges for exercising his legal right to photograph police officers in a public place. I can’t blog about every one of them, but the media is full of stories about police abusing their power. Intimidating citizens into giving up their rights is wrong, and is the hallmark of a police state run amok.

I refuse to quietly let the USA become a police state. A lack of resistance and public outrage in cases of clear official intimidation and harassment such as Christopher Drew’s and Michael Allison’s is all it takes for us to quietly slip into such a police state. If you are in Illinois, please make your objections known to your elected officials and the local news media. I would love to do a follow-up post about protests related to either of these two cases, or similar cases involving the abuse of this absolute garbage they call a wiretapping law in Illinois.

For residents of the other 49 states, I quote Thomas Jefferson: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” In this case, it’s keeping up with proposed legislation, and voicing emphatic and angry (but polite) objection to your state passing laws or amending existing laws similar to those laws currently on the books and being abused in Illinois.

Together, we can stop the police state. Enough is enough.

In the name of homeland security…

Apparently, if you work for the Department of Homeland Security, you’re above the law, and can do things with impunity that can easily result in ISP abuse complaints if done by an average citizen. Like this:

A recent Infowars post (warning: link contains profanity) details what some DHS employees do on company time. George Donnelly had his curiosity piqued by one of the few offensive comments posted to Infowars, and decided to see who the IP address belonged to. For those who don’t want to read the unedited copy, it goes something like this paraphrased version (misspellings in original):

Screw you, screw all you lower lifeforms, you wont change anything. ride the bus, TSA is here to stay there doing a great job keeping americia safe.

The answer shocked him as much as it shocked me, and it’ll probably shock you as well: the comment came from an IP address ( registered to the Department of Homeland Security. In plain English: it was most likely posted by a DHS employee on paid time; at minimum, it was posted from the DHS computer network. It would be one thing if it was just a flame with no profanity, but as posted, it goes way over the line.

George poses some interesting questions for the DHS worth quoting:

  • Is this an official statement?
  • If not, is it an accurate representation of the DHS position?
  • Was this person on the public dime when he or she posted this?
  • Who posted this and what is their position with DHS?

We know what the answers should be. I anxiously await whatever response George gets from the DHS. I’d also like to know who at the DHS thinks it is such a good idea to go trolling blogs that express negative opinions about the government, which are protected speech by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. To me, this is dangerously close to intimidation by the DHS, the type of thing which Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he uttered this quote:  “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.”

As a US taxpayer, I believe I’m entitled to know why the DHS is spending my tax dollars like this. While I would find it slightly repulsive if DHS employees did this on their own time, I find it positively abhorrent this is happening from an IP address registered to the DHS and quite possibly done by DHS employees on the clock.

And I am giving everyone advance notice: comments of the sort referenced by George in his post to Infowars linked above are, as a rule, unwelcome on this blog, particularly if they contain profanity. Even if such comments are not published on this blog, I reserve the right to forward such comments directly to news media if I determine such comments are posted from government networks, the corporate networks of known government contractors, or if otherwise connected to the government or corporations which contract for government business. As part of one of my jobs, I talk to news media on a regular basis, and I will not be shut up easily.

Let there be no mistake about it. I love my country, and I love the First Amendment, which gives us the freedom to criticize our government when it makes mistakes. In closing,  I’d like to refer to another, possibly lesser known, quote of Thomas Jefferson’s: “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.”

I consider this a matter of principle. I stand like a rock.

Why burn the Quran?

As reported by the Houston Chronicle, among others, a minister in Florida is only a couple of days away from burning copies of the Quran, the holy book of Islam, on the ninth anniversary of the 2001 September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. This plan by the pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center (DWOC) in Gainesville, Florida, has drawn outrage and criticism from many people, including President Obama and those in charge of our military. Indeed, the US government is considering contacting the pastor to attempt to change his mind (VOA).

It is understandable that many are outraged, some going as far as to say it would endanger our troops overseas in countries such as Afghanistan. I’m not a fan of the Quran burning or the viewpoint behind it either. I’m not sure what exactly it will accomplish besides further anger an already irritated Muslim population, both inside the US borders and outside. But neither am I a fan of censorship, which is what would effectively be happening were the pastor of DWOC prohibited or threatened with arrest for his expression. According to the second story linked above, Rackspace has already taken the DWOC website offline. I’m not really a fan of this either, but it’s certainly understandable that they chose to call the site “hate speech” given the circumstances.

The DWOC’s pastor has the right to his point of view. It is equally our right, however, to express ourselves and put distance between ourselves and those with such radical views. Burning the US flag is protected free speech; as objectionable and politically dangerous as it may be, I see no reason the Quran should be treated differently. However, I believe the DWOC pastor’s pyrophilic protest it is patently devoid of any sense of good taste and it is our duty as Americans–actually, as human beings, whether in the US and abroad–to let our opposing view be known, to condemn this act and others like it, as tasteless, senseless, vile, and putrid. The majority expressing their tolerance and respect for each other will easily drown out a minority expressing hate and disgust, especially in such an ill-advised fashion.

I believe the majority of Muslims are peace-loving people, as I am. It is just as wrong to judge all Muslims based on the actions of the September 11 terrorists as it is to judge all Christians based on the actions of David Koresh and the Branch Davidian cult. And nobody sane would dare try that one.

Cops vs. citizens with recorders: who wins?

A recent Gizmodo post discusses videos depicting police abuse and what is a dubious at best reaction from law enforcement. Specifically, some states are now making it illegal to record or photograph an on-duty law enforcement officer. From the article:

In response to a flood of Facebook and YouTube videos that depict police abuse, a new trend in law enforcement is gaining popularity. In at least three states, it is now illegal to record any on-duty police officer.

Even if the encounter involves you and may be necessary to your defense, and even if the recording is on a public street where no expectation of privacy exists.

The most alarming example comes from Christopher Drew, who recorded his own
arrest for selling $1 artwork on the streets of Chicago. The charges of
peddling in a prohibited area and not having a peddler’s license were dropped;
instead, Christopher is being prosecuted for eavesdropping, a class I felony.

Christopher documents his experience with some very pointed commmentary in this blog entry which includes a quote from Robert Lederman’s instructions to artists in New York City about documenting everything. Christopher also delivers this white-hot flame against the sad state of affairs in Illinois with regard to the eavesdropping law, which I quote in part (and agree with completely):

If you are a corrupt public official or a person involved in corruption its in your favor to have an eavesdropping law that prevents anyone from recording anything in public without the fear of a felony. A corrupt person feels more comfortable in a state like that. Unfortunately, its possible for a lot of honest people to end up felons while the real felons walk free. That’s why I ask – what is the state of our police in this state we are in?

Christoper’s experience is a huge blemish against the reputation of the city of Chicago as friendly to artists and those who express themselves. A blemish that a city of that size cannot afford.

Radley Balko wrote an editorial about Christopher’s rejected motion to dismiss the case, which asks many pointed questions, and also points out the history of the Illinois eavesdropping law, which originally had an expectation of privacy exception, but has not since 1994. Quoting Radley’s article:

Here’s where it gets even worse: Originally, the Illinois eavesdropping law did also include a similar expectation of privacy provision. But the legislature stripped that provision out in 1994, and they did so in response to an incident in which a citizen recorded his interaction with two on-duty police officers. In other words, the Illinois legislature specifically intended to make it a Class I felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison, to make an audio recording of an on-duty police officer without his permission.

The fact that this came about in response to an incident involving a conversation with two on-duty cops should say everything about the intent of the state legislature. This already-bad law, of course, has not gotten better with age; in fact technology and the ubiquity of small devices capable of recording audio and video has made this bad law even worse.

So is it always risking arrest to record an on-duty cop in those states? Well, not really, as quoting from the Gizmodo article:

In short, recordings that are flattering to the police – an officer kissing a baby or rescuing a dog – will almost certainly not result in prosecution even if they are done without all-party consent. The only people who seem prone to prosecution are those who embarrass or confront the police, or who somehow challenge the law. If true, then the prosecutions are a form of social control to discourage criticism of the police or simple dissent.

This kind of law, combined with blatant selective enforcement, is entirely out of place in free society, and a mockery of the standards by which decent people live. Indeed, I believe the criticism and challenge of unjust laws to be an essential part of a free society. I’ve used this quote from the FSF before, but it applies yet again:

The idea that laws decide what is right or wrong is mistaken in general. Laws are, at their best, an attempt to achieve justice; to say that laws define justice or ethical conduct is turning things upside down.

Indeed, the abuse of eavesdropping and wiretapping laws is another example of how those charged with enforcing the law often view themselves as above the law. It’s in the same general category as cops conveniently disregarding stop signs, traffic lights, speed limits, prohibited turn signs, etc at their convenience (when not responding to a bona fide emergency, and I specifically exclude the donut shop closing for the night in five minutes from the definition of such an emergency). Indeed, it’s incredibly convenient that getting video of these types of reckless acts by those sworn to serve and protect is risky business in some places, yet one could easily take all the video one wants of, say, a cop hugging his daughters.

I’d expect the kind of insanity in certain other countries: UK, Germany, France, maybe even Mexico or Canada. But the United States of America was founded on freedom from tyranny, and it is in the direction of tyranny that these laws take us. This egregious trampling of the First Amendment cannot continue unchallenged, lest those who fought to acquire and maintain that freedom and others are to have ultimately done so in vain.

Finally, I encourage everyone to support Christoper Drew’s legal defense, either financially or just by raising awareness of this serious issue. This is wrong and the real criminals here are the ethically bankrupt Chicago police and prosecuting attorneys. I’ll post more details on exactly what Christopher needs as I get them.