The U.S. Government Makes Me Gag

The beating heart of worries about free speech and the danger of overreaching government enjoyed a shock from the old defibrillator on June 8. That’s when attorney Ken White of prominent legal blog Popehat.com revealed that libertarian online publication Reason.com, where I was managing editor until June 30 (I left for unrelated family reasons) had received a grand jury subpoena dated Jun 2, demanding that the publication turn over identifying information about six of its readers. Even as that conversation got a jolt, though, few people knew just how desperate the federal government was to slap legal duct tape over the mouths of those who would criticize its officials and policies.

So...You're saying I overdid it?

Judge Katherine Forrest. Photo by U.S. Government

As Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch revealed, the readers targeted by the subpoena commented under pseudonyms on an article about the sentencing of Ross Ulbricht, the convicted entrepreneur behind the Silk Road online marketplace for illicit recreational drugs. Reacting to the brutal life sentence for Ulbricht, readers skeptical of drug prohibition left understandably enraged comments about Judge Katherine Forrest. They wished her to hell, suggested she ought to be shot, or recommended she be fed through a wood chipper. Not nice stuff. But then, taking away a man’s life because he engaged in victimless acts that you don’t like isn’t so sweet-tempered either.

Apparently angered by the darts tossed at Judge Forrest, Preet Bharara, United States Attorney for the Southern District, and his sidekick Assistant U.S. Attorney Niketh Velamoor, targeted the commenters for the attention of the modern bureaucratic inquisition. Speak out against the state, will you? Let’s have a scary and expensive look into your lives. The subpoena demanded “subscriber/account information,” “address(es), email address(es), telephone number(s),” “IP address(es,” “credit card/bank information”…

This "free speech" thing... I do not get it

Preet Bharara. Photo by U.S. Government

Dissecting the subpoena and the targeted comments, Popehat’s White noted that “true threats” to do violence to people are not protected by law, but that the angry ventings at Reason “are very clearly not true threats—that this is not even a close call.” That is to say, there was no legitimate reason to target the commenters, and no hope of prosecuting them. The intrusive investigation itself, with its related fears, inconveniences, and costs, was also the penalty.

Slowly at first, but gathering speed, law bloggers, political pundits, and news outlets picked up the story. Most agreed with White that Bharara and company were not just exceeding their authority, but threatening legitimate criticism of government officials. “Even if the subpoenas don’t result in the filing of any charges, they can still impose substantial costs on their targets, and create a chilling effect on political speech,” cautioned Ilya Somin at the Washington Post’s Volokh Conspiracy blog. The New York Post editorialized that Bharara’s subpoena “seems a dangerous case of overreaction”—and perhaps one intended to stroke a judge before whom he regularly appeared.

Bharara has a notably tense relationship with the judiciary that he may wish to paper over. A federal judge recently told him to watch his mouth and stop publicly declaring the targets of his investigations to be guilty before they’ve gone to trial.

Can't a guy help a friend...hurt an enemy?

Judge Frank Maas. Photo by U.S. Government

Absent from the discussion, though, was Reason itself. Its staff was unavailable to correct misstatements about the face off with the Justice Department, absent in the defense of valued readers, and didn’t even protest a general screwing by the government. This was all inconceivable for a publication that had never before been shy about flaying politicians, judges, and prosecutors. But there was a very nasty cause for the silence. Unbeknownst to the public, Reason and its staff had been threatened with fines and imprisonment if they said a word about the subpoena, or even revealed that they’d been ordered to stay silent. The publication had been censored through the issuance of a gag order, requested by loose-lips Bharara’s office and signed by U.S. Magistrate Judge Frank Maas, hours after Ken White got hold of the subpoena.

Americans think of their country as one that embraces free speech. “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties,” John Milton wrote in Areopagitica (1644). That celebration of open discussion came to permeate western civilization and invigorates the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Calling officials sons, daughters, or trans-puppies of bitches is a national pastime.

But that tradition of free speech has been violated overtly or quietly throughout the nation’s history. The Sedition Acts, Civil War-era censorship, and the Red Scares all represented government attacks on dissenting voices. American history is perhaps notable less for total absence of limits on speech than for belated revulsion at such attempts at muzzling. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and Senator Joseph McCarthy are now recognized by anybody worth a damn as national embarrassments.

Modern gag orders, such as the one imposed on Reason, fall well within the infamous tradition of contemptible policies that violate the free speech tradition and can be expected to eventually earn public repudiation. Bharara, Velamoor, Maas, Forrest, and company are due to join the ranks of figures whose roles in public life might well be more than a bit tarnished by their actions (and should really be limited to curbside recycling. In Pyongyang).

Legal eagles would have it that some gag orders are necessary to ensure fair trials or allow for effective investigation of ongoing crime. For arguments sake, let’s grant them the point. But the muzzling of Reason was imposed after Reason had (legally) forwarded the subpoena to commenters, after Ken White had obtained the document, and continued in place after the matter had become a topic for international discussion. When interested parties from New York to London to Moscow were sounding off on Preet Bharara’s inquisition, only Reason writers were forbidden to chime in—or to reveal why they were silent.

Gag orders are understandably controversial even among government employees garbed in black dresses. Just last year, U.S. Magistrate Judge John Facciola of Washington, D.C. slapped down the feds in a very similar case involving gag orders intended to conceal the existence of subpoenas targeting Twitter and Yahoo users. He objected that an order “would implicate Twitter’s rights under the First Amendment because it would be both a content-based restriction of speech and a prior restraint on speech.” Facciola allowed that the existence of the subpoenas and objections to them should be made public in redacted form so that debate could continue without jeopardizing the investigation.

And again, the gag order on Reason remained in place after the full content of the subpoena in question was already a matter of public discussion. A fair conclusion is that it was intended not to protect legal process, but to restrain Reason’s political speech, both to mold debate and to punish the publication for its dissent. Reason, it seems, was muzzled purely as an exercise in government thuggery.

That the subpoena and subsequent gag order were purely abuses of power is hardly a stretch of the imagination. Bharara, Velamoor, Maas, and Katherine Forrest are all political creatures. Obama-appointee Forrest, to her credit, once ruled against arbitrary detention powers under the National Defense Authorization Act (though her injunction was subsequently overturned). But at Ulbricht’s brutal sentencing she railed against the idealistic black marketeer less for trade in disfavored intoxicants than for trying to create a marketplace that “was better than the laws of this country.” That he actually succeeded seemed to deeply offend her. Bharara is a “bit of a prig” (in the words of New York magazine’s Chris Smith) who likes to publicly scold others for perceived moral failings. He’s been scolded in turn, by Reason writers, for his conduct in the Silk Road case, the treatment of an Indian diplomat in a dispute over pay for a housekeeper, and his general disregard for personal freedom. Bharara is also a Chuck Schumer crony and Obama appointee who campaigned for the Attorney General nomination before Loretta Lynch got the nod. That this crew would abuse the power of their offices to target a publication that regularly criticizes the government with which they so closely identify and that sponsors their careers is no surprise. It’s the outcome that Reason’s writers have advised readers to expect from powerful officials anytime they are allowed access to coercive power beyond the bare minimum.

Which is to say, there’s a certain “I told you so” satisfaction as a Reason staffer to railing against powerful government for years, only to be the victim of authoritarian predations worse than anything we had any cause to expect. We’d warned that officials are thin-skinned, convinced of their own superiority over mere mortals, and prone to use every tool at their disposal as bludgeons against personal and state enemies. Damned if we weren’t right.  Never again will our opponents be able to credibly accuse of us of overstating the case when we warn that the American state apparatus is out of hand. Because our readers were targeted by a bunch of political goons and we were threatened with legal consequences if we publicly objected!

But we could do without the vindication.

Frankly, after laboring under an official ban on speaking out against a despicable government assault, it’s easy to embrace the Reason commenters’ antipathy toward the powers that be, if not their prescribed solutions. In fact, it’s tempting to wish for this case to culminate in Preet Bharara, Frank Maas, Niketh Velamoor, and Katherine Forrest savagely clawing at one another in a desperate struggle for the final seat on the last flight out. Because, while America should always have room for people who respect liberty and value vigorous debate, they don’t share that respect. This country is entirely too good for the likes of them.

But it’s enough if the damage they’ve done leads to the offices they hold being stripped of the power to do such harm again.

Oh, and if you haven’t heard about this little incident from your favorite news outlets, perhaps you should contact them and ask why.

Jim Bovard Digs High Desert Barbecue

Recently, the most excellent journalist and scrutinizer of creatures governmental, James Bovard, had some kind things to say about High Desert Barbecue. In a review on his blog, he described the novel as “a zesty subversive romp through the woods and deserts of northern Arizona.” He goes on to write:

It is hard not to like a book that warns readers in the preface to not “use this novel as a hiking guide.” One can easily understand why the author resettled in that part of the world. Ridge lines stocked with Ponderosa Pines sound far more pleasant than either the Capital Beltway or the New York subway. The novel sparkles with a spirit of resistance to oppressive authority that is rarely encountered on the East Coast.

If you’ve read any of Bovard’s boooks, you know that he does an excellent job of dissecting the foibles and (more often) horrors committed by the state and its enablers. His latest work, Public Policy Hooligan, describes his journey to where and who he is today.

Free Again! (High Desert Barbecue, That Is)

That’s right, High Desert Barbecue is free for the Kindle, from December 3-5. Buy it for yourself, send it to a friend, gift it to an enemy. It’s free!

 

What’s High Desert Barbecue? So glad you asked. It’s my well-reviewed novel (really) in which conspiracy, arson and ineptitude threaten the desert West, and only a misanthropic hermit, a subversive schoolteacher and an unemployed business writer stand in the way.

FREE!!! Kindle Copies of High Desert Barbecue

That’s right. On October 27-28, the Kindle edition of High Desert Barbecue will be free, gratis, no charge to all-comers. Already have a copy? Impress your friends by gifting them with copies that don’t cost you a  frigging dime. Hey, who’s to know you’re a cheapskate? I won’t tell.

 

Remember, the free Kindle edition will be available Saturday, October 27 and Sunday, October 28 here.

 

Because of High Desert Barbecue‘s participation in KDP Select, which makes this promotion possible, other electronic versions will be temporarily unavailable. However, the Nook, PDF and DRM-free ebook will be back with the new year.

I appear on RT to discuss matters of military corruption and intoxication

After a disturbing video turned up of military contractors in Afghanistan blotto on booze and ketamine (and what good is a war zone if there’s no party?), I was invited on RT to discuss that matter and the tangentially related issue of corruption in the awarding of military contracts. If the discussion seems a little disjointed, it’s likely because anchor Liz Wahl was having technical difficulties. I suspect she couldn’t hear me at all, so I think she carried it off pretty well.

Thank you, for making High Desert Barbecue Book of the Month

Let me cut right to the chase. The good voters and members over at the Freedom Book Club awarded 66.2 percent of their votes to High Desert Barbecue, making it the Book of the month for July 2012. Yes, I’m mighty, mighty happy. And, since I’m shameless, I’ll point out that Freedom Book Club asks that you “[b]uy the book that wins the vote the first week of the month” with hopes of driving sales to the point that the book hits best-seller charts at Amazon and elsewhere, and so gains wider attention. You can do so here or find more options here.

Freedom Book Club does its thing every month to disseminate pro-freedom ideas with the hope that they become part of the wider culture — to acknowledge that, culturally speaking, “we’re soaking in it.” As the excellent arts-and-culture Website Ars Gratia Libertatis argues:

Believers in free markets and limited government are currently beset on all sides by a popular culture that glorifies collectivism, wealth redistribution and “social justice” and outright attacks or denigrates capitalism, individual rights and wealth.

Culture is the primordial ooze out of which political beliefs are born. This is why a culture that sees individual rights as subjective to the collective good will vote for politicians that believe in wealth redistribution. The culture that views unfettered free markets as harmful and exploitative will vote for more state control and regulation time after time. And so on.

To reverse the political tide of statism, it is necessary to shift the deeper cultural understanding of free markets, the primacy of the individual and to eloquently paint the horror of an encroaching, paternalistic government.

We think focusing on popular culture and entertainment can help to start that process. Stories are an incredibly powerful way to convey ideas and persuade other people. A sympathetic protagonist with a deeply held conviction in the free market allows one to feel, at an emotional level, that he is right.

Perhaps stories, paintings and verse are not enough to shift perception.  But they may just be crucial, and we have to try.

I don’t think that High Desert Barbecue is going to change the world. Don’t get me wrong — I have a huge ego. But I know my literary limitations. But if the book succeeds and helps to encourage other writers, artists and the like who share a taste for personal freedom, we just might chage the nature of what we’re soaking in.

Help make High Desert Barbecue a Book of the Month

High Desert BarbecueThe much-celebrated (within the confines of Cornville, Arizona) novel, High Desert Barbecue, a wacky, wacky tale of adventure in the Arizona wilderness, is a contender for July Book of the Month at the Freedom Book Club. Since I’m the author of the novel, that pleases me to no end. No end at all. The announced purpose of the Freedom Book Club is:

Freedom Book Club is devoted to getting books promoting individual liberty on the New York Times Best Seller List. This is done through the bourgeoise multitudes buying the selection of the month all during a specified range of dates (during the same week). It is the goal of Freedom Book Club to transform the world to into a free society through the education of self and sharing with others.

However achievable that goal may be, I’m on-board with it, and so should you be, of course. Past winners of the coveted Book of the Month can be found here. They’re all fine books, of course, but none measures up to the standards of the novel that Matthew Alexander reviewed at Prometheus Unbound as:

I think the best word to describe the book is ‘fun’. The peculiar characters and the humor they create fit perfectly with the lean style and fast story. It is equal parts prose that Kurt Vonnegut would approve of, eccentricity like you might find in a Coen brothers dark comedy, and libertarian morals embracing the permissive side.

“ADuckNamedJoe” of Ars Gratia Libertatis agreed, writing:

J.D. Tuccille’s first novel, High Desert Barbecue, is a great read. Filled with likable characters, tons of humor, and a nice sprinkling of libertarianism throughout, its breezy style makes it an easy story to pick up and get into.

So vote! Vote early and often! Vote Chicago-style! Vote here!

RT America appearance: Your license plate is being tracked

I appeared today on RT America based on the following post at Reason’s Hit & Run Blog:

DEA Wants to Track Your License Plate, and You May Already Be Tagged!
I distinctly remember, when I was a kid, watching an episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, during which Marlin Perkins lounged safely in a camp chair, while Jim Fowler put a lion in a headlock, bit a hole in the cat’s ear, and then attached a tag for easy tracking. Well, it went something like that, anyway. It’s been a long time. Too bad Fowler didn’t work for the DEA, or even a biggish police department. He could have saved himself a little sweat and blood by tracking Americans instead of animals, by the simple expedient of setting cameras by the side of the road to capture license plates as they speed by. …

I’m a Reason-able Guy

Horrible pun, I know, but I couldn’t resist. Anyway, I’ve been actively writing for Reason.com, starting almost as soon as I figuratively punched my time card. I have a couple of small pieces turned in for an upcoming issue of the print magazine, and the big project for which I was hired is … coming soon! Really, it’s coming along nicely and I think it will be well-appreciated.

I wrote an online column this past week on the TSA — an especially wise move, since I’m flying next weekend. If you see me limping around, it’s because I rated special attention at the airport security checkpoint. If you’re as big a fan of the airborne (and, increasingly, bus-borne, train-borne and even road-borne) security state, you’ll want to take a peek.

The Terrible Truth About the TSA: It’s a failure at everything it does
We don’t all all agree on whether the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has any business groping toddlers and destroying expensive medical equipment in the pursuit of its appointed mission of keeping travelers safe from scary terrorists. Quotable security expert Bruce Schneier calls it all pointless and oppressive “security theater” intended to make the government look responsive, while Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) describes intrusive measures as “very important” and pushes for even stronger stuff. But necessary evil or not, it’s increasingly apparent that the TSA is spectacularly inefficient and inept at everything it tries to do. (see more)

Of course, I’ve also been blogging for Reason. I covered Tombstone’s battle with the feds over permission to rebuild its waterlines yesterday, and the growing regulatory burden that’s choking innovation out of charter schools the day before. The full list of my contributions to Reason can be found on my staff page here.

For those who are curious … It’s a great place to work.

The now-inescapable Tooch

Oh sure, you thought you could keep your doses of disloyal opposition down to a tolerable level — no OD for you! But no such luck. You see, I’m now employed by Reason.com, the online incarnation of Reason magazine. That’s right, that’s me right there. Try to avoid me, now!

The project for which I’ve been hired will, I believe be much appreciated by you all as a further enhancement to an already excellent pro-liberty publication, and a useful service to the freedom movement. It’s not exactly hush-hush, but we’re not advertising yet, either. So I’ll keep my lips sealed until the appropriate moment, when I have something very interesting to show.