Three Secret Service agents detained and questioned the managing editor of a student paper Feb. 14 about a column he wrote that appeared in the paper asking God to “smite” President Bush.
The column was published in the Feb. 7 issue of the Stony Brook Press, a satirical campus newspaper at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
In his column, which he said was meant as a parody, Glenn Given said if God was busy he should get a different deity or “some crazy mortal” to do the job for him.
According to Given, the agents said they feared the article might be interpreted by some as a divine call to harm the president. A faculty member who became concerned after reading the column called the Secret Service.
“The intent of the editorial was absurdist satire,” Given said. “This paper has a really strong history of being satirical … and I wanted to keep with that tradition but in no way did we actually want someone to go and kill the president.”
According to federal law, it is against the law to “knowingly and willfully” threaten the president.
The Supreme Court distinguished between a threat and protected speech in 1969 when it ruled in Watts v. U.S. that political hyperbole does not pose a legitimate threat to the president’s safety.
Given said he was waiting for a friend in the Stony Book Press newsroom when three agents arrived unannounced and asked to speak with the paper’s editorial board.
“I asked them if they were here because of the column I’d written, and they said that they were so I told them I was responsible for it,” Given said. “They refused to let our photo editor, who was in the newsroom with me when they arrived, come along as a witness, and then they took me upstairs for questioning for several hours.”
Given said the agents questioned him about his background and personal history, including questions about any history of violence, his psychiatric background, his family history and past drug use.
“After they questioned me they took me over to the police station to have my picture taken and wait for a call from their supervisor,” Given said. “They told me their supervisor would decide whether or not they were going to take me home, although the investigation would not necessarily end, or if they were going to charge me.”
Given said he gave the agents permission to release his medical records and search his apartment.
“They looked around for any relevant information and then they told me I might still be charged if many more people called and complained about the article,” he said.
At the suggestion of the agents, Given said he decided to remove the remaining 100 copies of the newspaper from stands around the university.
“They said they thought that was a good idea but said I could still be charged” even after removing the papers, he said.
The Student Press Law Center and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press wrote a joint letter to the Secret Service on Thursday protesting agents’ “over-aggressive response” to Given’s column and asking the Secret Service to issue a written apology to Given and the Stony Brook Press.
A spokesman for the U.S. Secret Service Field Office in Melville, N.Y. refused to comment on the incident.
About every four years we hear of incidents similar to this. As mentioned above, federal law does prohibit “knowing and willful” threats against the President and other top government officials. Such threats, however, must be credible and real, which is why the Student Press Law Center objected to the Secret Service response to the Stony Brook Press article, which any reasonable person should have been able to understand did not constitute a genuine threat. Still, the Stony Brook incident makes clear that the Secret Service