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About That “Abort Obama” Poster Case

by @ 7:45 am on February 20, 2009. Filed under Barack Obama, Freedom of Speech, Individual Liberty, Legal, Politics

There’s been much discussion among the right-side of the blogosphere about this case out of Oklahoma:

OKLAHOMA CITY — A handmade anti-abortion sign in the back of an Oklahoma City man’s pickup truck prompted a traffic stop and a visit from the Secret Service.

However, a police supervisor acknowledged Thursday that confiscating the man’s sign went too far.

According to a police report, Hal “Chip” Harrison, 55, was pulled over by police at 8:30 a.m. on Feb. 12 along Interstate 44 at Southwest 119th Street because of a sign in the back of his vehicle that read, “Abort Obama Not The Unborn.”

Officers believed the sign constituted a threat, confiscated it and contacted the Secret Service, prompting a brief investigation.

Secret Service agents determined Harrison was no threat to the president after conducting a walk-through of his southeast Oklahoma City home. Agents conducted a field interview on his patio, Harrison said.

Police soon returned the sign as well.

While stopping Harrison was up to the officer’s discretion, Oklahoma City Capt. Steve McCool said the officer should not have confiscated the sign.

“We feel it was a bad decision to confiscate the sign. It’s kind of a First Amendment issue — freedom of speech — and that probably shouldn’t have been confiscated,” McCool said.

He said the decision to contact the Secret Service is also up to the officer.

However, Harrison said his sign was in no way meant to be a threat against President Barack Obama.

“My sign is about anti-abortion. It’s not about killing the president,” Harrison said.

Here’s an interview with Harrison from a local television station:

It’s worth noting that Harrison was not arrested and he isn’t being charged with anything. The question, though, is whether the police and Secret Service went over the top in pulling him over and then questioning him about a sign hanging in his car window.

It seems to me that the answer to that question is two-fold.

First, Harrison’s “speech” was stupid and sophomoric, but the First Amendment protects all speech, even the stupid and sophomoric stuff.

Second, there really isn’t anything out of the ordinary about this. The Secret Service has *always* been aggressive, some would say overly aggressive, in investigating people who make what some might interpret as threats against the President, and this has become even more the case since 9/11. The fact that the President was Obama instead of Bush wouldn’t matter to them.

Consider these examples from the Bush years:

Owner of home painted with Swatikas and anti-Bush message investigated by Secret Service.

Secret Service investigates Eminem for anti-Bush lyrics in rap song.

Secret Service confiscates anti-Bush drawings by 15-year-old

Secret Service visits 81-year-old to ask about letter criticizing Bush

And that’s just from the first two pages of a Google search for Secret Service and Bush threats.

So, there really isn’t anything unusual about what happened in this case and, when the sign was brought to the attention of the Secret Service’s attention, they did the same thing they would’ve done regardless of who the President was.

As for the legality of all this, Eugene Volokh makes an excellent point about the stop and subsequent investigation:

A bad decision on the officers’ part, but a correct one on the higher-ups’.

The Secret Service also apparently visited Harrison and asked “to (walk through the house) and make sure [the driver] wasn’t a part of any hate groups” (I quote Harrison here). “He said they interviewed him for about 30 minutes and then left, not finding any evidence Harrison was a threat to the president.” This seems a bit heavy-handed.

At the same time, law enforcement is indeed entitled to investigate — and to ask people’s consent for searches — based on nothing more than a hunch, or a sense that there’s a very low probability that the subject of the investigation may have committed a crime or may be a planning to commit a crime. And such a hunch or felt probability might be based on what the subject is saying; if the statement is ambiguous, they may investigate to resolve the ambiguity. (I assume that the Secret Service was interested in whether Harrison belonged to groups that might be a threat to the President, not to “hate groups” in the more general sense.) I don’t think there was any real ambiguity here, but the Secret Service is naturally and understandably pretty careful about such things

I agree with Volokh; the stop was a bad decision on the officers’ part, but it wasn’t anywhere close to being outside of the scope of reasonable suspicion necessary for a stop. And the Secret Service clearly didn’t do anything wrong.

In the end, this strikes me as something that’s a bit over-the-top but not at all unusual and certainly not the assault on free speech that some have characterized it as being.

Update: I obviously didn’t make it clear enough in the original post, but my point is that, under current law, the officers were close to the line when it came to the decision to pull this guy over. They should not have done it, but given the amount of discretion that Court’s have given the police in recent years, it’s likely that a good number of Judges would say that the stop was okay. Where they went too far, I think, was reporting the sign to the Secret Service. Once it was in the Secret Service’s hands, though, the situation played out pretty the same way these types of situations always have — they agent investigates, finds out there’s nothing to worry about, and closes the case.

Although you’ve got to wonder if Mr. Harrison’s name isn’t on a list somewhere now because of this.

And of that’s the case, then this really is a travesty.

At the same time, though, this is not the attack on free speech that Malkin and others on the right have tried to characterize it as being.

H/T: Crystal Clear Conservative

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6 Responses to “About That “Abort Obama” Poster Case”

  1. KipEsquire says:

    It’s worth noting that Harrison was not arrested and he isn’t being charged with anything.”

    But not as “worth noting” that the police had no legal basis to pull him over in the first place. Neither is it as “worth noting” as the fact that even if the sign had indeed read “Assassinate Obama,” then the police STILL would have no legal basis to pull him over.

  2. James Young says:

    You’re the libertarian, Doug, and I’m the one who’s a little more dubious on this.

    I wonder what the story would have been had this guy said — as I might have — “Go to Hell. You don’t have a warrant; you’re not entering my home”?

    I suspect the outcome might have been different. How different? I really don’t know.

  3. Perhaps, I didn’t make it clear, but I agree with Volokh that this was over the top.

    Where I disagree are with those who are characterizing this as some kind of assault of free speech. As the Bush-era links demonstrate, it’s really just more of the same.

    And I for one think that people should be more willing to assert their 4th Amendment rights.

  4. Sam Davis says:

    I just wonder how long it will be before the local politico’s in oklahoma will give this guy the “joe the plumber” treatment. Will we be hearing things like this guy owes back taxes, is not registered to vote, etc.?? Just sound too much like big brother’s thought police …

  5. James Young says:

    Whew! You had me a little worried there.

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