Patriot Act Hysteria -- A Trip Down Memory Lane:
Back in 2002 to 2005, it was common for the media to go nuts whenever anyone claimed that anything bad that happened was related to the Patriot Act. Someone would trip on a banana peel and announce that the banana peel was put there by the Patriot Act, and TV and major newspapers would go bonkers over the alleged abuse. ("Why is the government using the Patriot Act to place banana peels on the sidewalk?!?!? Why is it assaulting innocent Americans? This has nothing to do with terrorism!!").

  It was kind of fun to poke holes in these stories, in part because it was so easy: All you needed to do was actually read the Patriot Act and have some basic understanding of the laws that it amended. For some reason I will probably never understand, this basic step occurred to very few people actually talking about the Patriot Act to and in the media. But so it goes.

  Anyway, this trip down memory lane is inspired by a recent case of Patriot Act hysteria — the case of a 16-year old who was arrested for making bomb threats at Purdue University. The FBI obtained an search and arrest warrant for the 16 year-old, came to his parents home, and arrested him and searched the home. He was arrested, formally charged, appointed a lawyer, and has had a few court appearances already.

  What makes the story big news is that the kid's mom purports to believe that her son is entirely innocent and that the Government took him away under the Patriot Act in violation of all of his constitutional rights. A local TV station and a radio show apparently didn't check on whether the claims had any validity — or even whether the law was as the mom described — and they ran the story. The written version of the TV report is here, and the video version — which is really the best part, I think — is here. The story then took off across the net.

   I thought about poking holes in this story just for old times' sake, but Kevin Poulsen of Wired News got there first. He has two great posts on this: Bloggers, TV, Go Nuts Over Misleading 'Patriot Act' Arrest Claim. He then follows up with a bit more about the evidence of what the teenager did — and what the mother knew — in this post: Teenage Bomb Threat Suspect Was Internet Prank-Call Star. DOJ's press release in response to the misleading coverage is here. There are a lot of gems in Poulsen's coverage — very much worth reading.

  Finally, I'll add a postscript that shouldn't be necessary but probably is. Pointing out that almost all the stories of alleged "Patriot Act abuses" have nothing to do with the Patriot Act at all (and usually are not actually "abuses") does not mean that I do not think there are civil liberties abuses in America; that such abuses should not be taken seriously; or that the Patriot Act was perfect in every way. The point is about incredibly bad media coverage, and how easily some stories are told and retold even if the facts don't back them up — even today, almost 8 years after the Patriot Act was passed.