Saturday, February 20, 2010

U.S. Federal Authorities Give Arrogant Advice AND Try to Redefine an English Word

I've just read an extraordinary article in Newsweek about a federal case over how far the authorities can go in getting a cell phone owner's phone regards -- not eavesdropping, but the data through which they can determine where you were at a given time. The first part of the title above is a reference to prosecutors saying if a cell phone owner doesn't like it, that's easy -- you don't need to carry a cell phone. The second part of the title above refers to an, um, "novel" claim by the authorities of the meaning of the word "solely."

You can read the article at this URL, and I hope you do so you get the full feel of what it is I reacted to so strongly:

While there are times federal agents might need such records -- the example of the agent tracking fugitives is a good example -- even under "2703(d)" orders, the agent or other authority seeking records needs to be required to explain to a judge just exactly what connection the information might have to the suspected crime. "It might be relevant" doesn't cut it, either, though apparently that seems to have become the basic departure point for some, especially since the passage of the Patriot Act.

For the prosecutors to have written "One who does not wish to disclose his movements to the government need not use a cellular telephone" is troubling, as is another assertion they made: "The term 'solely' is not wholly prohibitive, but rather, partially restrictive."

I'll address the "unusual" claim regarding the meaning of the word "solely" first.

Not wishing to rely upon my status as a native speaker of English, nor upon my two degrees in English, nor upon my many years teaching English in universities, mostly in the context of writing to native speakers and as language to non-native speakers, nor upon the fact I'm a writer, I looked it up. My dictionary defines "solely" as "1 only, completely. 2 alone." [Just for the record, my dictionary defines "sole" as meaning "1 one and only. 2 not shared, exclusive."]

Therefore, regarding the claim "the term 'solely' is not wholly prohibitive, but rather, partially restrictive": case dismissed.

Turning to the rather arrogant statement "one who does not wish to disclose his movements to the government need not use a cellular telephone," I have a counter-proposal to those prosecutors: "one who mistakes himself as being above the law should never be a prosecutor, nor even allowed to be." And when a prosecutor arrogantly dismisses citizen concerns regarding their 4th Amendment rights by saying a citizen just shouldn't carry a cellular phone -- and makes that assertion in writing -- he/she has just proven himself/herself, by his/her own words, as unworthy of being in the noble legal profession.

Most of us don't begrudge the authorities doing what is often a difficult and thankless job, and we are supportive and appreciative, even if we're not very good about expressing those sentiments. However, it has to be a two-way street: we don't want a police state.

I'll do my part now: thank you for doing your jobs. Just please give what I've written above some passing reflection.

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