Earlier this year. we wrote about a guy in the UK, Paul Chambers, who was arrested
after he tweeted a message about blowing up his local airport if it didn't reopen in time for the flight he had to take the following week. The message was clearly a joke. Now, as I mentioned at the time, I have no problem with the police doing a quick check to make sure it's really a joke, but that's as far as it should go. Instead, the police ended up arresting him under the Terrorist Act and eventually charged him with a crime
. They did not
charge him with making a fake bomb threat (which is a crime) because they knew that such a charge wouldn't stand up in court. Instead, they charged him with using the internet to send a "message that was grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character." Chambers is back in the news, as he's now appealing his ridiculous conviction
If you thought such things only happened in the UK, it turns out you'd be wrong. I was just listening to a recent episode of This American Life
, which covered an amazingly similar situation, involving American comic Joe Lipari
. After having what can charitably be described as a "bad" Apple store experience, he went home and was watching the movie Fight Club
-- and got "inspired" by a famous line from the movie
, and paraphrased it into a Facebook status reading:
Joe Lipari might walk into an Apple store on 5th Avenue, with an Armalite AR-10 gas-powered semi-automatic weapon and pump round after round into one of those smug, fruity little concierges. This may be someone you've known for years. Someone very, very close to you.
It's a pretty direct paraphrase from the movie. Yet, it took all of about an hour for a bunch of NYC police at his door, carrying machine guns and wearing bullet proof vests.
Just like the case of Chambers in the UK, rather than recognizing that this throwaway social media message, charges were filed against Lipari -- and they were pretty serious charges. There were two felony charges -- including one for "making terroristic threats." Rather than dropping it after recognizing this was joke, the case actually started out by going to court -- where the ADA even admitted to the judge that they knew Lipari was a comedian and this was a joke intended for his friends... but they still wanted to push forward. Lipari, to his credit, turned down various plea deals, believing that the whole concept of him being arrested and charged with this was ridiculous. The story ends with the ADA finally backing down, and the case is currently likely to be dismissed (though it hasn't fully been dismissed yet).
The similarities between Chambers' situation in the UK and Lipari's situation in the US seem pretty clear -- and neither are particularly flattering for law enforcement folks. Yes, obviously we still live in a time where "heightened awareness" to potential threats makes sense. But, at some point (and probably some point really, really early on), it should have become clear in both of these cases, that these were just two guys making stupid jokes via their social networking status tools -- and that's the point at which everything should have been dropped. That both cases went much, much further is a travesty, and suggests that law enforcement is wasting time on things like this, rather than real threats.
On a separate note, if you keep listening to the second story on that same episode of This American Life
, it's yet another depressing tale of really questionable police activity, and how the police didn't just turn on a guy who tried to fix the system, but literally came up with trumped up charges to get him locked up in a mental institution without telling anyone. Folks in law enforcement talk about the respect that they deserve, but by doing things like this, they show they haven't earned such respect.