Willful Paranoia: The Classic Excuse for Willful Paranoia #IStandWithAhmed

American lives are controlled by the thuggishly mediocre. The best measure of their control is this: when called out on their mediocre thuggery, they can comfortably double down.

Ahmed Mohamed, a bright and curious ninth-grader in Irving, Texas, learned that to his regret this week.

Ahmed made a clock. He likes to make thing and repair things and tinker with things, apparently. Last weekend he built a digital clock out of a circuit board and a power display and a digital display. There is, I suppose, a chance that I could do that without electrocuting myself, but I wouldn't bet on it.

In his head, Ahmed lives in an idealized world he learned about in robotics club: a world where individuality and curiosity and initiative are appreciated. Or at least he did. But this week he found out that he actually lives in a different world, a grim real world controlled by school administrators and cops who are deeply suspicious of individuality, if not openly hostile. Ahmed lives in a world where children's lives are limited by the stupid, ineffectual fear of the petty and the ignorant. He lives in a world where school administrators strip-search thirteen-year-old girls to look for ibuprofin and suspend eight-year-olds for making pretend finger-guns while playing cops and robbers. He lives in a world where police arrest seven-year-olds for bringing a nerf gun to class and perp-walk twelve-year-olds in front of their peers for writing "I love my friends" on a desk with a marker.

In that world, Ahmed's clever clock didn't earn him admiration. It earned him a trip to the principal's office, a contemptuous and skeptical interrogation by an officer of the Irving Police Department, a suspension, and a trip in handcuffs to a juvenile detention center — because a circuit board with a time display must be a bomb, or at least intended to look like a bomb.

Actually nobody thought the clock was a bomb. The school didn't think it was a bomb. The police admitted they never thought it was a bomb. The police admitted Ahmed never suggested it was a bomb, or that he meant for anyone to think it was anything but a clock. But grown-ups detained, interrogated, arrested, and handcuffed Ahmed because they couldn't conceive of why a kid would build his own clock:

“We have no information that he claimed it was a bomb,” McLellan said. “He kept maintaining it was a clock, but there was no broader explanation.”

Asked what broader explanation the boy could have given, the spokesman explained:

“It could reasonably be mistaken as a device if left in a bathroom or under a car. The concern was, what was this thing built for? Do we take him into custody?”

Did the putative adults pestering Ahmed do it because his name is Ahmed Mohamed and he's brown? Maybe. “Yup. That’s who I thought it was,” said one officer mysteriously upon seeing him. But on the other hand, this is the era of zero tolerance and of institutionalized paranoia and of petty little people using fear to hold on to power. This is what our kids' lives are like, and we've decided to accept it. Schools are safer now than before, but we've decided to feed on the fear the media feeds us and accept that they are more dangerous, justifying harsher treatment of kids. Kids are safer than ever, but we've consented to being constantly terrified about various menaces to them. Cops are safer, but we've decided to accept their narrative that they are the targets of an unprecedented war, and hand them the power they say they need.

My mother was a school administrator, and there are many decent and concerned school administrators. But to be blunt, school administrators were generally not the kid who built his or her own clock at 14. (Cops were generally the kid who beat up the kid who built the clock.) There are two ways for school administrators to deal with the unfamiliar, the unknown, the different: they can try to learn about it, and even nurture it, or they can react to it with fear and suspicion. We've told school administrators and police "we choose fear, and we want you to choose fear too."

Cops and school administrators are utterly confident in our support when they abuse someone like Ahmed. You can see it in the response of principal Dan Cummings:

I recommend using this opportunity to talk with your child about the Student Code of Conduct and specifically not bringing items to school that are prohibited. Also, this is a good time to remind your child how important it is to immediately report any suspicious items and/or suspicious behavior they observe to any school employee so we can address it right away. We will always take necessary precautions to protect our students.

In other words, faced with a freakish overreaction by the school, and the suspension and detention of a student for building a clock that nobody ever thought was dangerous, the school's response is to remind students that some items are prohibited (even though nobody says the clock was), and to exhort students to report "suspicious" items and behavior. In response to a public saying "you're paranoid," the school's response is "you're goddamn right I am, and you should be too."

When I was a kid, schools and cops generally didn't do anything about bullying. Now they profess to be very concerned about it, and there are elaborate programs in place that purport to combat it. But educators and cops either don't grasp, or don't care, that their culture of fear encourages bullying. Detaining and humiliating a geeky kid who built a clock, and following up with a self-justifying "if you see something, say something" warning, sends an unmistakable message: different is suspicious. That's a bully's attitude, too.

We're expected to give cops and administrators the benefit of the doubt. I don't: I think they are like any other human beings. There are some good and some bad. Some care, and some are doing what they do to increase their own power. But even the well-intentioned who participate in a culture of fear are blameworthy. To them, I say this: you say you're trying to protect our children. But instead you've devoted your career to making the world a worse place for them.

Terrorist clock? Or birth of a new libertarian? DON'T FEED THE WOODCHIPPER!

Terrorist clock? Or birth of a new libertarian? DON'T FEED THE WOODCHIPPER!

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

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.

Teaching The Children Well

My three kids have three Spring Breaks, one after the other. At any given time, the one on Spring Break is indolent and the other two are insolent and resentful. I may be working late a lot this month, and my wife is going all Lifetime Movie of the Week with the wine fridge.

But elsewhere, across America, kids are still learning. Their impressionable little minds are absorbing the important lessons offered to them — lessons about math, lessons about English, lessons about science, and always lessons about civics — the relationship between the state and its citizens.

Take seven-year-old Josh Welch of Maryland. Josh was suspended because a teacher says he bit a pastry into the shape of a gun and waved it around. Josh learned a valuable lesson about the amount of trust and respect he should have for government actors.

In Pennsylvania, five-year-old Madison Guarna was suspended for "terroristic threats" when she told friends she was going to shoot them with a Hello Kitty toy that makes soap bubbles. Madison learned an important lesson about how government actors will use citizens' fear and uncertainty to convince them to surrender rights and to increase the government actors' power.

In South Carolina, six-year-old Naomi McKinney was expelled from school — and threatened with criminal trespass charges if she returned — when she brought a clear plastic toy gun to school. Naomi learned an important lesson that government actors like broad rules that give them substantial power over citizens, and dislike requests that they exercise judgment, proportion, or what non-governmental actors might call reason.

In Philadelphia, fifth grader Melody Valentin arrived at school and realized that in her pocket she had a paper gun her grandfather had made for her. She tried to throw it away, but another student saw her and informed on her to the principal. School officials scolded her publicly and threatened her with arrest and searched her. Melody learned a valuable lesson about how state actors will maintain power by turning citizens against each other and making citizens extensions of their own control.

Finally, in Lodi, California, school officials propose to teach children many messages at once through an "anti-bullying" initiative forbidding students from "posting crude or disparaging remarks via electronic media."

First, arguing that after-school activities are a privilege and not a right, Lodi school authorities argue that they have the power to impose such a broad policy on outside speech upon students who want to participate in such activities:

Extracurricular activities are privileges, not rights, district officials said. With athletes and club members, they have a vehicle to take away an activity that students enjoy. They don't have that leverage for students who simply attend their classes and go home, officials said.

This teaches children the important lesson that everything the government gives you or does for you comes with a price — and that the price is often a piece of your liberty.

Second, Lodi officials are arguing students and parents can't be trusted to handle this issue themselves:

However, a sampling of Lodi High students say it's an issue that students can address on their own without adult interference.

Administrators and trustees in the Lodi Unified School District don't agree, saying that some students cross the line when it comes to posting comments about others.

This teaches children that government actors do not view them as capable of thinking or acting for themselves, and crave ever-increasing authority over them.

Third, Lodi officials are crafting a broad, vague, subjective policy:

Beginning in the 2013-14 school year, student athletes and club members will have to sign a contract promising that they won't post remarks that can emotionally harm others online. This includes social media like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr.

The policy applies to students both in school or out. This teaches children the lesson that government officials seek control over every aspect and every moment of their lives. The policy makes students responsible for the subjective emotional reactions of others. This teaches students that government actors like rules that are subjective (giving them more power) and rules that expand their power into the realm of feelings rather than actions (giving them more power). The rule is exceptionally vague. What types of emotional harm is covered? If a student complains that a particular person is bullying her, and the bully is embarrassed, has the bullied child broken the policy? As a tweet "our team crushed your team," causing despair, a violation? It's hard to tell. This teaches children that the government favors vague and ambiguous policies that maximize their power over citizens, and that often induce citizens to remain silent rather than speaking at all and risking violation of the policy.

Some look at these educational policies and despair. I, on the other hand, look at my kids and see how sharply they observe the world around them. Surely the children in Maryland and Pennsylvania and South Carolina and California are watching their teachers and taking away the right lesson — the lesson about how much they should trust, respect, or defer to the government.

Hat tip to Nathaniel.

From The Desk Of Michael Bloomberg, Gracie Mansion

Friends and fellow citizens:

Almost twelve years ago, you elected me as your Mayor with what I consider a sacred trust: to look out for the health and welfare of all of the citizens of the greatest city on Earth.  As I look back on what we've accomplished together over these twelve years, I'm filled with pride.

Two thousand years ago the Emperor Augustus boasted that he found Rome, the Big Apple of its day, a city made of brick: He left it clad in marble. I like to think that twelve years ago I found New York City fat, wheezing, diabetic, and dependent on addictive chemicals put into our food by the Merchants of Death: I hope to leave New York fit and trim, with clean air and a sensible, healthy diet for all.

There have been stumbles along the road to a healthy city for sure. While we've made great strides in taking away so-called "choices" such as trans fats and needlessly high sodium, some have claimed that our policies, enacted for the health and safety of all New Yorkers, fail to comply with outdated laws and customs. But over my career I've never let roadblocks like antiquated judges or slanders from the forces of Big Fat, Big Salt, Big Sugar, and Big Tobacco stand in my way. Today I'm as dedicated to improving your health, and that of your children, and leading you to a healthy life as I was when I started.


You probably heard that yesterday we announced a ban on open display of tobacco products in all stores throughout the city. This is a big thing. Make no mistake. When a child sees a pack of cigarettes displayed behind a counter at the local bodega, it tells the child that smoking is a natural and healthy way of life. Nothing could be further from the truth! Cigarettes are killers, and we're going to put a stop to them.

You see, sometimes we need to alter people's behavior. Smoking is just plain disgusting. It provides no benefit whatsoever, and is known to cause harm. Most products are legislated to ensure they are safe, yet cigarettes are allowed to kill with impunity. Even guns have more restriction on them. In Canada this has been the norm for years, and the rates of teen smoking have dropped. I'm hoping that within my lifetime, smoking becomes a footnote in historical textbooks. And for the people who would go on about their freedom of choice I ask you, if it was fashionable to smoke dog dung, would you do that too?

I rest my case.

And yet, as proud as I am of the legacy I'll leave this city, I feel not just pride, but worry. We've done so much, but clearly there is so much more to do. I'd like to give you a preview of forthcoming initiatives, which we'll roll out over the coming months during this, the final year of my term as your Mayor, to bring you the happiness, health, and safety that you, as citizens of the world's greatest metropolis, so desperately need.

[Read more…]

The Trick In Dealing With Government: Find The Grown-Up In The Room

Speech has consequences. Some of these consequences are legitimate; they are reflections of other people's speech. You might disagree with them, but if you have any self-respect, you won't whine that they constitute censorship.

But some consequences — often, but not always, inflicted by the government — are illegitimate. Warren, a business owner who writes at Coyote Blog, encountered such a consequence. When he expressed himself on his blog and linked to a negative Yelp review of a government agency, a functionary from that agency threatened him with loss of government contracts:

Well, one day I got a letter via email from a regional manager of the state parks agency whose park was the subject of that Yelp review I linked. I was notified that I had 48 hours to remove that blog post or I would lose all my contracts with that state. In particular, they did not like a) the fact that I linked to a negative Yelp review of one of their parks and b) that I impugned the incredibly noble idea that state parks are all operated by law enforcement officials.

There are a lot of things Warren could have done. I'm sure there are a lot of things he was tempted to do, as I would have been. Instead of doing the most viscerally satisfying thing, the most "just" thing, or the most "righteous" thing, Warren did the most effective thing for his business and for the immediate preservation of his freedom of speech: he engaged with the grown-up in the room.

Fortunately, I was able to write the acting General Counsel of the agency that afternoon. Rather than sending something fiery as the first salve, I sent a coy letter observing innocently that her agency seemed to believe that my contracts with the state imposed a prior restraint on my speech and I asked her to clarify the boundaries of that prior restraint so I would know what speech I was to be allowed. To her credit, she called me back about 6 minutes after having received the letter and told me that it was void and asking me to please, please pretend I had never received it. So I did, and I reward her personally for her quick and intelligent response by not naming her agency in the story.

When you deal with government agencies, you often deal with people who are entitled, or stupid, or indifferent. But there are also people who are capable, dedicated, and principled. There are grown-ups in the room. You can rail against the government — as I do here — but, if you want quick and painless results, you can also look for and politely engage the grown-up. Maybe the grown-up is genuinely concerned with your rights. Maybe the grown-up is genuinely concerned with the government agency staying out of the headlines, or out of unnecessary trouble. Maybe both. You could vent your spleen to them — you could point out that they are surrounded by thugs and jackasses. That would be satisfying. That would be true. That would be just. But it wouldn't be effective.

Sometimes you just want a swift, effective outcome. When in doubt, find the grown-up in the room, and be civil and understated to him or her.

Monks Prevail On Appeal Over Rent-Seekers And Bureaucrats

Back in 2010 I wrote about a lawsuit by the Institute for Justice on behalf of the monks of Saint Joseph Abbey of St. Benedict, Louisiana. The monks want to sell gorgeous hand-crafted wooden caskets; they are opposed in this effort by Louisiana legislators and bureaucrats, who are the corrupt lapdogs of the behemoth funeral industry. The obedient lapdogs told the monks that they would pay fines, or go to jail, unless they became fully licensed "funeral directors." As I said back then:

Louisiana law purports to require that anyone who is going to sell a casket has to jump through all same regulatory hoops as a full-fledged mortuary operation that embalms bodies. See, selling "funeral merchandise" (including caskets) means you are a "funeral director." And to be a "funeral director," you must be approved for "good moral character and temperate habits" by a funeral-related government entity [of course, that's in Louisiana, but still], complete 30 semester hours at college, apprentice with a funeral director for a year, pay an application fee, and pass an exam. But that's not all. If you want your facility to sell caskets, it's got to qualify as a facility for funeral directing, including a showroom and "embalming facilities for the sanitation, disinfection, and preparation of a human body."

Why does Louisiana officialdom require all that? They do so because they are the lapdogs of the funeral industry — and the funeral industry manipulates the mechanism of the state to create barriers to entry and impediments to competition, because they don't want monks offering lower-cost competition to their ruinously expensive and ugly coffins.

The monks, to my surprise, won in the district court. Yesterday, they won on appeal as well. The Fifth Circuit released a rip-roaring opinion largely in their favor, certifying a relatively narrow issue of state law to the Louisiana Supreme Court. The Court expressed disdain and skepticism at the protectionist arguments of the state and the rationality of the statutory scheme: "As we see it, neither precedent nor broader principles suggest that mere economic protection of a pet industry is a legitimate governmental purpose, but economic protection, that is favortism, may well be supported by a post hoc perceived rationale as in [some prior cases] – without which it is aptly described as a naked transfer of wealth." The court also exposes the state's clearly pretextual justifications for the rule to actual rigorous scrutiny, which it does not survive. What is alarming and contemptible is how the state here argued openly that it should be allowed to pass legislation preferring its cronies over their competitors, and how it was willing to assert that there is a rational basis for making monks handcrafting caskets learn to be embalmers.

Is this a victory? Yes. But it's a victory that is like being struck by lightning. You won't see it again soon. For the most part, the courts allow legislators and regulators to prefer their donors and cronies by erecting barriers to entry and irrational rules with only the thinnest and most preposterous veneers of public good. They and their industry cronies think they are entitled to do so. It is up to us to show them otherwise.

Via Walter Olson and Nola.com.


It would be nice if everyone could read Popehat under the same terms and conditions. Unfortunately, given the diverse laws that apply in different jurisdictions, that's just not possible. We previously announced special Terms of Use for our good friends in Canada, as required by their flourishing and cherishing of their unique culture vis-a-vis hurty words.

Now circumstances require us to create special terms of use for Minnesota residents. See, some of you have occasionally said that, despite our best efforts and lack of relevant skills or experience, you occasionally learn something at Popehat from posts like this or this. That's problematical in Minnesota.

You'd think that Minnesota residents should be free to learn whatever they want from any site on the internet. You'd be wrong. The State of Minnesota determines not just what degrees may be offered there, but how its residents may learn things on the internet. Recently the Office of Higher Education has instructed Coursera — an institution that offers not degrees, but free courses on a variety of subjects online — that it may not provide its free online courses to Minnesotans without state permission. Coursera has edited its terms of service accordingly.

Notice for Minnesota Users:

Coursera has been informed by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education that under Minnesota Statutes (136A.61 to 136A.71), a university cannot offer online courses to Minnesota residents unless the university has received authorization from the State of Minnesota to do so. If you are a resident of Minnesota, you agree that either (1) you will not take courses on Coursera, or (2) for each class that you take, the majority of work you do for the class will be done from outside the State of Minnesota.

Now, I think it's unlikely that Popehat would be treated as subject to the statute. We're not a learning institution and we don't offer "courses," per se, except in the sense of "a course of abuse." But we can't be too careful. We're talking about a state that thinks it should dictate whether web sites in other states can make free online content available to its citizens. Who knows what they'll do next? I don't want to subject Popehat to Minnesota's onerous disclosure requirements or pay fees or be subject to injunctions if some functionary within the Minnesota Office of Higher Education decides that Popehat is attempting to offer courses in, say, Spammer Communications. I don't want to have to go to Minnesota to defend myself. Lakes make me itchy. Plus, my lovely wife spent only a couple of years there in the 1970s and I still laugh at her accent, so I'm concerned that legal proceedings there may not go my way.

Therefore, in an excess of caution, please be aware of the following change to Popehat's terms of use:






We thank you for your attention.

via Amy Alkon.

So Your Doctor Has An Agenda. You Think The Government Doesn't?

Back in 1980 or so, my parents decided to send me to a new doctor in town to address some youthful complaint or other. The doctor was youngish, well-qualified, and charismatic. He showed me into a consultation room, handed me a clipboard with a lengthy questionnaire, and told me we'd talk after I had completed it.

At first the questionnaire was unremarkable — it asked about my health and medical history. Then it turned questions to sexual activity. As a very geeky eleven-year-old boy, I took this as something of a dick move, like a food stamp application asking where your summer home is. But I conceded that questions about sexual activity among kids were rationally related to health, however spectacularly unnecessary they were in my case.

Then the questionnaire turned odd and uncomfortable and intrusive. It asked about masturbation. It asked about looking at pornography. It asked about thinking about sex, and the frequency of such thoughts. (I was an eleven-year-old boy. There was no box to check for "I think about it all the time. I think about it between the seconds.") It asked about same-sex attraction. At this remove, more than 30 years later, I'm not sure if the questionnaire had a religious sensibility or some other purpose. I only know that I found it instantly creepifying, and dreaded the doctor who would ask such things coming back into the room to touch me. I couldn't put it into words at the time, but it was clear that the doctor had a non-medical agenda — an agenda beyond determining if I had ulcers or diabetes or fungus or something.

So I contrived never to visit that doctor again. I told my parents I hated him, and that was that. Government intervention was not required.

Regrettably, some people seem to think the government should intervene to protect patients from doctors with personal agendas.

The impetus for such intervention is a perceived upswing in politcal-agenda-driven medical care, seen when doctors are urged to hector patients about their carbon footprint or about gun ownership. In Florida, an anecdote about such behavior led to a state law:

The Republican-controlled state Legislature adopted the Firearm Owners' Privacy Act in 2011 after an Ocala couple complained that a doctor asked them about guns and they refused to answer. The physician refused to see them anymore.

The Florida legislature's reaction was swift and stupid: it passed a law telling doctors they "should refrain," on pain of disciplinary action, from asking patients about gun ownership or the presence of guns in the home, unless the doctor "in good faith believes that this information is relevant to the patient's medical care or safety." The law didn't define what situations might lead to such a good faith belief, and the law seemed to reflect the legislature's judgment that a general concern about the risks posed by guns in the home did not constitute such a good faith belief, and doctors were left to speculate about what questions might lead to disciplinary action against them.

Fortunately, last month a federal judge struck down the law on First Amendment grounds, finding that (1) the law was a content-based restriction on speech, (2) Florida had not provided evidence sufficient to demonstrate a compelling interest justifying such a restriction on speech, and (3) the law was so vague that doctors could not determine what speech was prohibited. The opinion is long, but well-reasoned and clear, and a good exposition of the law on strict scrutiny of content-based restrictions. Governor Scott, foolishly, vows to appeal.

I believe that the push to have doctors ask patients about guns flows primarily from a political-interest-group-driven anti-gun agenda. I also believe it reflects an unbecoming ambition by some in the medical profession to become entrenched in broader segments of patients' lives. None of my doctors have asked me, but if they did, my trust in them would be diminished, and if they failed to accept a polite "I'm not going to discuss that," I'd find a different doctor. If a doctor wanted to fire me as a patient because of that answer, I'd consider myself lucky to know that the doctor is an ideologue whose political views outweigh his or her commitment to my care, and happily avoid him or her — as I would with a doctor who restricted patients based on their voting record.

I can understand the sentiments of people who react with more anger to agenda-driven physicians. But what I can't understand is the sentiment "well, the government can fix this" — particularly when it comes from conservatives and Republicans, who have spent the last few years complaining about how much Obamacare interferes with the doctor-patient relationship. I am especially disdainful of people who, having complained for years about over-regulation of the doctor-patient relationship, pass a broad and vague bill restricting the words that doctors can speak to their patients. You're mad that some doctors have an agenda? Fine. Fire your doctor and shop for one who doesn't. But asking the government to protect you from agendas is like asking Freddy Krueger to protect you from nightmares. Do you really want the geniuses in the Florida legislature making judgments about what words are appropriate for your medical professional to say to you?

Hat tip to Csoar.

You Knew I Was Going To Write About This

Folks in the government seem to believe that government service is magic and transformative. They tend to view the citizenry they rule as made up of imbeciles and rubes who can't be trusted to think for themselves. Yet even though they themselves are uplifted from that same crowd of rubes, they think that their governmental position qualifies them to sort out what folks should be buying and doing and saying from what they shouldn't. Is the electoral process mystical? Does cronyism imbue its beneficiaries with some dark art? Does civil service stamp a lightening-bolt scar on your forehead? I can't say. When I was with the government, my feelings of superiority were premised on callow youth and sheltered upbringing, not upon my government salary. I must be a born muggle.

So if government actors so clearly believe in magic, why are they so hostile to it? That's what Rachel J. Adams, doing business as "Readings By Faith," wanted to know. Court documents describe Rachel thus:

Plaintiff claims that she was born with the ability to “understand and appreciate Tarot cards1, telling of futures, psychic abilities and palmistry.” She practices card reading, fortune telling, telling of futures, and palmistry in Alexandria.

I left out the footnote, in which Magistrate Judge James Kirk (James D. Kirk, sorry) dryly notes "Palmistry is the art or practice of reading a person’s character or future from the markings on his palms" — as in "this person is letting me read his palm, which tells me he is of a character to give me money."

Anyway, the City of Alexandria takes a dim view of people like Rachel, and has outlawed her profession in its Code of Ordinances, §15-127:

It shall be unlawful for any person to engage in the business or practice of palmistry, card reading, astrology, fortune-telling, phrenology, mediums or activities of a similar nature within the city, regardless of whether a fee is charged directly or indirectly, or whether the services are rendered without a charge.

Rachel Adams thought this was unfair. So she sued in the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana, asserting that the Alexandria City Code violated her First Amendment rights to read palms and tell futures and thus-and-such. Last week, she won.

[Read more…]

We Few, We Fragile Few

John Richards of Boston (the one in Lincolnshire, not the one in Massachusetts) is an atheist. He decided to express his atheism on his own property in a rather mild way: he put up a letter-sized piece of paper in his window with the slogan "religions are fairy stories for adults."

In the modern United Kingdom, this simply would not do.

John Richards was told by officers that he may face arrest if he put up the sign at his Vauxhall Road home, as it could breach the Public Order Act by distressing passers-by.

Now, when I first encountered the story, I thought that Mr. Richards might be exaggerating, or that this might be the act of a single out-of-line officer. In fact, when called on this, the local constabulary merely confirmed it:

In a statement Lincolnshire Police said the 1986 Public Order Act states that a person is guilty of an offence if they display a sign which is threatening or abusive or insulting with the intent to provoke violence or which may cause another person harassment, alarm or distress.

The statement adds: “This is balanced with a right to free speech and the key point is that the offence is committed if it is deemed that a reasonable person would find the content insulting.

“If a complaint is received by the police in relation to a sign displayed in a person’s window, an officer would attend and make a reasoned judgement about whether an offence had been committed under the Act.

“In the majority of cases where it was considered that an offence had been committed, the action taken by the officer would be to issue words of advice and request that the sign be removed.

“Only if this request were refused might an arrest be necessary.

So, it's not as bad as you thought. You don't get arrested immediately for hurting someone's feelings — you only get arrested if you refuse to stop hurting someone's feelings.

Today I'm not going to repeat my usual free speech rant: how suppression of the right to express oneself is vile, how the "balancing" of that right with a supposed right to be free of offense is unprincipled, and how such censorship is dangerous because it arms the state not only with weapons to suppress speech it doesn't like, but with ambiguous standards allowing it selectively to harass enemies.

Instead, I'd like to say a word about character.

What is the character of a person who sees a sign like that in a pensioner's window, and runs to the police to complain?

Could a person with such character stand up, against great odds, in the face of the the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt? Could such a person do his duty, as England expected, at Trafalgar? Could such a person keep calm and carry on? Would such a person fight on beaches, on landing grounds, in fields and streets, in the hills, and never surrender? Is such a person capable of having a finest hour?

I ask because of this: societies that make rules like this one, encouraging its citizens to scamper mewling behind the skirts of the government when faced with the least offense, produce people with the character necessary to take them up on the offer. It is hard to imagine how a nation run by people of that character can endure — or at least, how it can endure as anyplace you'd want to live.

Hat tip to Josephine Jones on this story.