In my last entry, I teed off on talk show hosts. Here’s what I said:
Each morning they are faced with the daunting task of culling the news for articles they can use to whip their listeners into enough indignation and outrage to pick up the phone. Few in the electronic media bother to read our opinions although they are posted on our website. It is enough for them to read a few sentences from a newspaper article and spice it up with some provocative catch phrases like, “what is happening to the moral fabric of America,” and then watch those phone lines light up. But that is all okay because radio is, after all, entertainment. Talk radio is a unique kind of theater; I enjoy it myself sometimes.
Writing that bit reminded me of the case of the Snoopy Mom. After the first thousand cases, most of us give up trying to remember the cases by name; it is easier to remember them by subject matter or curious fact. Snoopy Mom grabbed attention and sympathy coast to coast. Bill O’Reilly called the court collectively “pin heads” on national television. Even my sister, Jan Houston, a school teacher from Ellensburg, called to give me grief about the case. It’s a good story with an ironic twist at the end.
Here’s what really happened. Two young men approached an elderly woman walking down the street at night in Friday Harbor. One of the men grabbed the woman’s purse. She struggled, fell and broke her glasses. The young men fled into the night with her purse. Later, 17-year-old Oliver Christiansen called his girl friend, Lacey. Lacey’s mother answered the phone and handed the cordless head set to Lacey who took it into her bedroom and closed the door. Lacey’s mother waited until Lacey was out of sight and then pushed a button on the base of the cordless phone unit to activate the speaker function. The Snoopy Mom overheard Christensen tell Lacey that, although he did not do the crime, he did know where the purse was. Christensen was charged with theft. Over Christiansen’s objection, Lacey’s Snoopy Mom was permitted to testify about the conversation she overheard.
There was a problem. Washington’s legislature has adopted one of the broadest anti-wiretap laws in the nation. Our Privacy Act generally makes it illegal to intercept or record a conversation using a “device” unless everyone in the conversation agrees. Most states only require one person to consent, but Washington was one of 11 states requiring “all party” consent. The Privacy Act also specifically prohibits courts from listening to illegally gathered evidence. The main issue we had to decide was whether the cordless phone base was a “device” under the act. We had already held the police could not intercept calls with remote cordless devices so it was a pretty easy call to hold that the base of a cordless phone was a device under the Privacy Act. We held Snoopy Mom’s testimony should have been excluded and granted a new trial.
Somehow someone interpreted our opinion as interfering with a mother’s right to supervise her children. The talk show hosts picked it up and caused a fire storm. I received hate mail from across the nation. For some reason, I decided to exchange emails with a young man from Indianapolis, Indiana, who accused me of being “immoral.” I explained that parental rights were not implicated in the opinion because neither the mother nor the daughter was a party in the case; neither raised the issue of parental rights. It was the State against Christiansen. If the daughter had been the defendant, interesting arguments could have been made that the daughter did not have an expectation of privacy, or the mother had a right to monitor her calls, or the daughter had implied consent to having her calls monitored. But it was a stranger to the household, Christensen, who was in court and he was not the Snoopy Mom’s child. Christensen had not consented to her listening to his conversation. The poor lad from Indianapolis was confused because the talk show host had not discussed any of these facts on the radio.
Remember that I said there was an ironic twist to this case? On retrial, Christiansen was convicted again. It looks like the testimony of the Snoopy Mom was not offered or needed because at the time Snoopy Mom, the great mother whose parental rights had been trampled on by the court, was serving a year in prison for stealing $129,000 from her employer, the U.S. Postal Service. http://www.sanjuanislander.com/county/sheriff/mugging.shtml.
Incidentally, I too occasionally enjoy Bill O’Reilly’s show. But I watch it for its entertainment value as political theater not for its news content.