Patriot Act Tales Continue

A decade ago, I spent a lot of time debunking misunderstandings of the USA Patriot Act. Unfortunately, the press coverage of the Patriot Act began in the (mostly) pre-blog era, and the media coverage of it was laughably bad. The problem was that most reporters had no idea what was in the Act, but they had a feeling that whatever was it in, it must be dramatic. So they reported the Patriot Act as a dramatic change without providing any details, leading a lot of people to think that every seemingly-sinister act by the government must be part of the Patriot Act. Fortunately, a decade later, the hysteria has mostly died down, but this post at Popehat suggests it’s not quite gone:

Yesterday I was looking at our traffic on Woopra and noticed a huge surge of searches for Ashton Lundeby. Who, you may ask? You know, Ashton Lundeby, the kid who was arrested for interstate telephone threats and became the subject of an internet propaganda campaign suggesting that he was being detained without charges under the PATRIOT ACT, possibly in a FEMA dungeon someplace. They Greys may or may not have been involved.

In fact, Lundeby was not detained secretly under the PATRIOT Act; that was propaganda sourced to his mother. Rather, he was arrested and charged as a juvenile under pre-9/11 statutes, indicted and prosecuted as an adult once the relevant U.S. Attorney’s Office secured a court order allowing them to do so under preexisting law governing federal juvenile defendants, and later entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to 22 months time served. His mother later admitted she had made the PATRIOT ACT stuff up.

So why are people Googling him again?

Well, probably because another set of folks whose political agenda is served by the OMG BLACK HELICOPTERS routine — this time various folks who identify with the Occupy movement — have been pushing, uncritically and without even minimal due diligence, the bogus Lundeby-as-PATRIOT-ACT-victim story, two years after it was conclusively refuted, and even though the most minimal search reveals many sources showing it isn’t true.

It’s not hard to see why the Patriot Act was so poorly understood in 2001. People were freaked out by 9/11, and that led to two emotional reactions: Some people deeply wanted really dramatic anti-terrorism legislation, and other people deeply feared that the response to 9/11 would be really dramatic anti-terrorism legislation. The Patriot Act was actually pretty modest, once you understood it. But the narrative of Patriot-Act-as-Huge-Change fit nicely with the narrative a lot of people were very inclined to hear. It didn’t help that it was very technical legislation passed in a pre-blog era: The nerds who followed the field closely knew perfectly well that the media coverage was terrible, but there was no obvious way to get the press to realize their errors.

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