Ratting A Child Out to the Secret Service as a Bush Hater

From Alternet.

Selina Jarvis is the chair of the social studies department at Currituck County High School in North Carolina, and she is not used to having the Secret Service question her or one of her students.

But that’s what happened on September 20.

Jarvis had assigned her senior civics and economics class “to take photographs to illustrate their rights in the Bill of Rights,” she says. One student “had taken a photo of George Bush out of a magazine and tacked the picture to a wall with a red thumb tack through his head. Then he made a thumb’s-down sign with his own hand next to the President’s picture, and he had a photo taken of that, and he pasted it on a poster.”

According to Jarvis, the student, who remains anonymous, was just doing his assignment, illustrating the right to dissent. But over at the Kitty Hawk Wal-Mart, where the student took his film to be developed, this right is evidently suspect.

An employee in that Wal-Mart photo department called the Kitty Hawk police on the student. And the Kitty Hawk police turned the matter over to the Secret Service. On Tuesday, September 20, the Secret Service came to Currituck High.

“At 1:35, the student came to me and told me that the Secret Service had taken his poster,” Jarvis says. “I didn’t believe him at first. But they had come into my room when I wasn’t there and had taken his poster, which was in a stack with all the others.”

She says the student was upset. “He was nervous, he was scared, and his parents were out of town on business,” says Jarvis. She, too, had to talk to the Secret Service.

“Halfway through my afternoon class, the assistant principal got me out of class and took me to the office conference room,” she says. “Two men from the Secret Service were there. They asked me what I knew about the student. I told them he was a great kid, that he was in the homecoming court, and that he’d never been in any trouble.”

Then they got down to his poster.

“They asked me, didn’t I think that it was suspicious,” she recalls. “I said no, it was a Bill of Rights project!”

At the end of the meeting, they told her the incident “would be interpreted by the U.S. attorney, who would decide whether the student could be indicted,” she says.

The student was not indicted, and the Secret Service did not pursue the case further.

“I blame Wal-Mart more than anybody,” she says. “I was really disgusted with them. But everyone was using poor judgment, from Wal-Mart up to the Secret Service.”

When contacted, an employee in the photo department at the Wal-Mart in Kitty Hawk said, “You have to call either the home office or the authorities to get any information about that.”

Jacquie Young, a spokesperson for Wal-Mart at company headquarters, did not provide comment within a 24-hour period.

Sharon Davenport of the Kitty Hawk Police Department said, “We just handed it over” to the Secret Service. “No investigative report was filed.” Jonathan Scherry, spokesman for the Secret Service in Washington, D.C., said, “We certainly respect artistic freedom, but we also have the responsibility to look into incidents when necessary. In this case, it was brought to our attention from a private citizen, a photo lab employee.”

Jarvis uses one word to describe the whole incident: “ridiculous.”

12 thoughts on “Ratting A Child Out to the Secret Service as a Bush Hater”

  1. One of the several reasons I gave up on blogging was that I found myself posting things like this, which eventually became depressing, far more depressing than simply reading them on other people’s blogs. It just seemed like I was being swept away in a flood of outrageous stories that nobody seemed to care about except me and a couple of friends. It’s like this country has lost its sense of proportion, to say nothing of the capacity for outrage. Bummer. Our taxes pay for all this too…

  2. Yeah. I don’t post much like this, and when I do, I usually let it speak for myself rather than commenting on it.

    At least they didn’t indict him…

  3. You should report this to news outlets other than alternet.org. I’m sure this is something that major media organizations should know about, and I’m a little surprised that no one else in the world (according to news.google.com, at least) has picked this up beyond quoting The Progressive. (Well, that’s not true: http://www.smarthouse.com.au/Entertainment/Digital_Cameras/?article=/Entertainment/Digital%20Cameras/News/H2M7Q3J8 – a magazine about “Lifestyle Technology News & Information – carried the article about “Geroge[sic] Bush” and his disregard for people “expressing there[sic] opinion”.)

    But getting beyond my own skepticism, shouldn’t this have been picked up elsewhere? Seems like a pretty dire description of things where a malicious Wal-Mart employee can just sick the Secret Service on every high school student that gives ol’ Shrub the thumbs down. Is there a media conspiracy to purposefully ignore these stories? Are the news media concerned that they might have the Secret Service check THEM out for simply reporting news like this?

  4. It seems to me like the Secret Service behaved rationally and professionally in this case.

    Their job, among other things, is to protect the life of the President. From their perspective, they received a call from Wal-Mart saying they had a picture of President Bush with a red dot on his head, and a thumbs-down next to the head. That’s all the information they had, and from their perspective, I think that sounds like something that they need to follow up on. They have no clue that this is a kid doing a social studies project.

    So they go to the school, interview the student, follow procedure, and nothing more happens because it’s clear that this was not a threat to the President.

    I’m not sure what the problem is. Yep, that’s our tax dollars at work–we pay to have the Secret Service do their job. The story mentioned no intimidation tactics, no invasion of privacy, no measures beyond what the Secret Service should reasonably do to make sure that their boss is not being threatened. In hindsight, of course, it’s clear that it was nothing more than a student exercising free speech. They did not have that hindsight, and it sounds like they did the right thing to gather the facts they needed.

  5. ‘At the end of the meeting, they told her the incident “would be interpreted by the U.S. attorney, who would decide whether the student could be indicted,? she says.’

    Sounds like intimidation tactics to me, and Wal-Mart screening my photos for political agitation sounds like invasion of privacy to me.

    I don’t think a picture of somebody with a tack in it and a thumbs down warrants any action whatsoever, much less pulling a teacher out of class and interrogating her.

    I wish they had a picture of the image — I think it’d be great if people could post it on their sites all over the nation to participate in the dissent, and thumb their nose at the Secret Service.

    But that’s just me.

  6. (The fact that it was for a *civics lesson about exercising civil rights* makes it so poignantly ironic… It wouldn’t be much of a story I guess if it wasn’t for that aspect of it — that students were asked to exercise their civil rights and were investigated by feds for doing so.)

  7. Ed,

    You wrote:

    “At the end of the meeting, they told her the incident “would be interpreted by the U.S. attorney, who would decide whether the student could be indicted,? she says.’”

    I agree, that does sound somewhat goofy, but it could also be standard operating procedure for how the Secret Service brings cases to closure. It may be that they were jerks, or it could be that it was something they had to say as a part of their job. I don’t think the story gives enough context to know.

    “Sounds like intimidation tactics to me, and Wal-Mart screening my photos for political agitation sounds like invasion of privacy to me.”

    Wal-Mart was not screening photos specifically for political agitation. They saw something that they thought looked like a threat to the President, they told the Secret Service, and the Secret Service agreed that it could be a threat (or they had to follow up, because that’s their job). Whether or not Wal-Mart should be looking at customer photos is a different question, but (and I could be wrong) aren’t photo store employees supposed to report things like this?

    “I don’t think a picture of somebody with a tack in it and a thumbs down warrants any action whatsoever, much less pulling a teacher out of class and interrogating her.”

    Maybe not, but what did the picture look like? Was it blurry or clear? Was it obviously a thumbtack or a vague red dot that could be blood, a representation of a laser, or something else? In context, the picture is not harmful. The Secret Service did not have that context, so they went to find out the information they needed.

    On the flip side, if they had ignored the picture and it had turned out to be a lead that could have stopped an attempt on the President’s life, what would people be saying?

  8. I can be construed as plausible and reasonable, Joel, that’s true. But I just can’t imagine this happening in any political atmosphere other than the present one.

    If they had ignored the picture and it had turned out to be a lead that could have stopped an attempt on the President’s life, that’s fine. You could also prevent attempts on the President’s life by having surprise searches of people’s homes on a random basis by the Feds looking for plans to kill him. And yet nobody would blame the Secret Service for failing to stop a plot by doing that.

    You can prevent a lot of crimes, or at least claim you’re preventing them, by insanely repressive measures. The fact that an act might have prevented a terrible crime does not in and of itself justify that act.

    But yeah, you’re right, this isn’t completely beyond the pale. Each individual event in the chain of events can be justified as something that seemed reasonable to the people involved at the time. But it adds up to an ironic statement about the current state of our civil rights.

  9. The Secret Service could certainly have apologized for all the ruckus once they found out it was nothing, instead of making menacing statements that amount to warning everyone concerned to straighten up and fly right.

    And is it WalMart’s job to turn in people they find suspcious? They are clearly inspecting people’s photos and alerting law enforcement to things they don’t like. They at least ought to warn people about that.

  10. From about.com:

    According to this law — 18 USC Sec. 871 — which reads, in part:

    “…Whoever knowingly and willfully deposits for conveyance in the mail or for a delivery from any post office or by any letter carrier any letter, paper, writing, print, missive, or document containing any threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States, the President-elect, the Vice President or other officer next in the order of succession to the office of President of the United States, or the Vice President-elect, or knowingly and willfully otherwise makes any such threat against the President, President-elect, Vice President or other officer next in the order of succession to the office of President, or Vice President-elect, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.”

    So, maybe Walmart stumbling across something that might be construed as a ‘threat’ should be taken seriously.

    Either way, today’s lesson: If you’re going to threaten the president, develop your own film and make your own copies.

  11. Today’s lesson: even disapproval of the president may be construed as a threat and investigated as such. Best not to disapprove. ESPECIALLY do not try to exercise the rights your civics teacher claims you have. That’s mostly a historical curiosity.

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