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Secretive police, policing speech

Homeland Security is a lousy name purely for its connotations: It echoes too near the old German “fatherland” and Russian “motherland” (or “fatherland”). The eeriness factor multiplies when it generates cases like that of Dwight Scarbrough in Boise.

That story, told inthe current Boise Weekly (and highlighted well in the current Boise Guardian), is enough to make anyone wonder whose security is being protected. The dividing line, apparently, has to do with who you vote for.

The full story (including tape conversation transcripts), well worth reading, is in the Weekly. (A number of comments have been posted to it; none indicate any sort of rebuttal of the facts presented.) Briefly: Scarbrough, who is a veteran and also anti-war and critical of the Bush Administration, is also a federal employee at the west Boise federal center near Overland Road and Interstate 84. His vehicle is splattered with stickers reflecting his views. As a federal employee, he is not allowed to campaign on work time or in the office, and hasn’t been accused of that. Like everyone else, he isn’t allowed “Posting or affixing signs, pamphlets, handbills or flyers on federal property”, but then most people wouldn’t consider driving a car into a parking lot to constitute “posting or affixing.” Homeland Security apparently isn’t like most people, and (provoked by who or what, we do not know) sent a couple of agents around to Scarbrough. His free exercise of speech on his personal motor vehicle, he was told, would have to go.

Scarbough has been battling this, and the American Civil Liberties Union has gotten involved. Again, read the Weekly for the whole tale. But circle back around for four other points:

First. Is there any record of Homeland Security demanding similar removal of pro-Bush or pro-war signage? Any at all? Even once? A Boise federal building parking lot surely has a few Bush bumper stickers in evidence; were the owners of those vehicles similarly confronted? (We’d give them a bye – for consistency if nothing else – if the agents similarly confronted the owners of all other vehicles in the lot containing any sort of sticker. Why should stickers for rock bands or TV shows be exempt?)

Second. Scarbrough was confronted not per se as a federal employee, but rather someone who – presumably – had “posted or affixed” signage on federal property by virtue of driving onto it and parking there. This had nothing to do with his employment, only with the vehicle he drove. Does that mean anyone who has similar kinds of signage on their vehicle – or even a worn-out Kerry/Edwards sticker on their bumper – and parks on federal property (how about, say, within a national forest or on BLM land) can expect a similar visit from Homeland Security? And if not, why, exactly, not?

Third. Under which of the DHS six agenda points does shutting down Scarbrough’s free speech fit? The closest fit might be “increase overall preparedness” – if that is, you take a really dark view of what the agency is preparing for.

Fourth. The spookiest part of the Weekly story came at the end, when the reporter was trying to track down the mysterious Boise Homeland Security office (the federal flavor, not the state). Here is what he wrote about that:

I was only able to confirm the location of the office after asking the security officer at the Natural Resource Complex, whose job (ostensibly, at least) it is to enforce the rules concerning pamphlets, dogs and other controlled substances on federal property. He would not comment about the incident, saying, “If this is about what I think it’s about, I’m not allowed to say nothing.” He referred me to “FPS, Federal Courthouse, Department of Homeland Security,” to find someone who would be able to comment. When I asked who I should say referred me, he covered his nameplate with his hand.

The “office,” once I found it, wasn’t much of an office at all, from a service perspective. The door was locked and there was neither a receptionist nor a desk at the front window. When I rang the doorbell, a woman emerged from a nearby cubicle and spoke to me through a tennis-ball-sized hole in the window. She would not confirm the name or identity of the officers, nor their badge numbers (Scarbrough, of course, had written them all down). I slipped a business card through the hole, and by press time, no one had called me back.

However, when I tried the number provided by the U.S. Marshals, Terry Martin at the Federal Protection Service was able to confirm that the officers identified by Scarbrough did, in fact, work for Homeland Security. He then referred me to the Department of Homeland Security’s media spokesman in Texas, who had not responded by press time to my request for information about the incident, or about any change in federal law concerning stickers on vehicles in federal parking lots.

The former Senator Steve Symms used to sign off his letters with, “Yours for a free society.” Welcome, Steve, to the society of Homeland Security, where government is becoming too elusive for anyone to take a bite out of it.

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