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Journalism organizations protest Secret Service's interrogation of newspaper satirist

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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Student Press Law Center asked the director of the U.S.…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Student Press Law Center asked the director of the U.S. Secret Service to apologize for interrogating a student who wrote a satirical article for a college newspaper, in which the writer asked Jesus to “smite” the President of the United States.

“We believe that it is inappropriate to harass a journalist, editor, writer, or any citizen for exercising his or her right to free speech,” the organizations wrote to Secret Service Director Brian L. Stafford. “Prior to allowing federal law enforcement agents to launch an intrusive and intimidating investigation, the government must make a reasonable attempt to distinguish between true threats and political hyperbole. This was clearly not done in the present case.”

On February 14, Secret Service agents from the Melville, N.Y., field office appeared at the offices of The Stony Brook Press, a student newspaper at SUNY-Stony Brook, to question editors about an editorial by managing editor Glenn Given entitled “Dear Jesus Christ, King of Kings, all I ask is that you smite George W. Bush.” Given, writing an open letter to Jesus, stated that he had “found” Jesus in light of the recent election and asked Jesus to “smite” Bush, other Bush administration officials — and MTV “vee-jay” Carson Daly.

The agents, who allegedly made it clear that they were considering arresting Given, asked him to “voluntarily” sign waivers that allowed agents to obtain his medical records and search his home, which the agents subsequently did. Given was told by Secret Service agents that his editorial was not protected by the First Amendment. Agents also stated that they might file charges if they received additional complaints about the editorial.

“There is a proud history of political satire in America. Satire, sarcasm, hyperbole and parody allow for richer expression,” the media organizations said. “We may not all agree with Mr. Given’s sentiments, but we all agree that he has an unrestricted right to express his opinion.”

The two groups then asked the director to “issue a formal, written apology to Mr. Given and The Stony Brook Press for subjecting them to unreasonable harassment,” to educate its agents about First Amendment issues, and state clearly that it will not pursue charges against Given based on his editorial.

The letter to Stafford and a copy of the original article can be found on the home page of the Reporters Committee’s Web site at https://www.rcfp.org, or directly at https://www.rcfp.org/news/documents/ssprotest.html .