May the US Government Copyright Public Signs?
The Federal Bureau of Investigation shut down a web site created by Mr. Jones [not his real name] of Padre Island, Texas, just south of Corpus Christi. As an immigrant from Poland, Jones was under the impression that the US had free speech, including freedom of expression in the internet. He learned that this is not so.
Jones often visits the Padre Island National Seashore, which is governed by the National Park Service. One section of the seashore, North Beach, has been used by naturists as a nude beach. Jones created a web site showing pictures showing the beauty of the park, including North Beach.
In July 1998, while walking along the shore with his two dogs, an unmarked car came up to him. Two men got out and approached him. One was a ranger of the National Park Service; the other identified himself as an FBI agent. The agent said the FBI knew about his web site. His picture of the entry sign of the Padre National Seashore violated the copyright of the Park Service. The entry sign includes an NPS shield, which is copyrighted and may not be shown.
One would think a photograph of a public sign does not seem to violate copyright laws, but the FBI claims otherwise. The agent insisted that the web site be closed, and reminded Jones of the powers of the FBI. As a Polish immigrant familiar with the power of the KGB and other authorities of the formerly communist Soviet block, Jones knew what government agents could do to you if you defy them. He took down his web site.
Perhaps the motivation of the FBI and National Park Service in this case was that they did not want any publicity about the nude beach at Padre Island National Seashore, even though there is no law against nudity at North Beach. Or perhaps this is part of a new attempt to increase federal power and revenue by charging a fee for any depiction of any federal signs on buildings and parks.
Whatever the motivation, this shut down of a web site is just another example of the federal government out of control, ever increasing its power over not just the internet but all expression and economic activity. The Constitution will not stop it. The government uses the power FBI, IRS, and BATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) to intimidate people and instill fear, so a trial at law is often not necessary. In the case of Mr. Jones, a threat was sufficient. Even if one is willing to be a hero and defy the power of the state, most folks fear for the safety of their families, and capitulate to government power.
The only remedy for this tyranny is to restructure the way we elect public officials. Mass democracy, with millions of voters electing public officials, leads to corruption and abusive government, because the special interests who finance the candidates, along with government officials, override the interests of the public. The only way out that I can see is to replace mass democracy with small-group democracy, as I described in my October 1997 editorial, Democracy Needs Reforming . When people vote in small district councils that then elect higher- level councils, an individual voter can make his voice heard and acted upon by his local representative, who then acts on his higher-level representative, and so on to the top level. All the officials at the top are elected by all the levels below them, and can be brought down by any of those levels. This makes government officials directly accountable to the voters.
We can either have a movement to reform our voting system, or else let the government intimidate people and stifle free speech. Let the case of Mr. Jones be a warning of more to come.