Free Speech at Funerals or Unethcial behavior? In Ethics where do you draw the line?

October 6, 2010

Is it possible that what is ethical behavior for one person or group is unethical to another?  Now the question doesn’t relate to dramatically different cultures – the question relates to Americans vs Americans.  Beyond the issue of ethics – the question of law is being raised today related to that very issue.

According to a CNN news report:

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Wednesday in a legal battle that pits the privacy rights of grieving families and the free speech rights of demonstrators.

In 2006, members of the Westboro Baptist Church protested 300 feet from a funeral for Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Westminster, Maryland, carrying signs reading “God hates you” and “Thank God for dead soldiers.”

Among the teachings of the Topeka, Kansas-based fundamentalist church founded by pastor Fred Phelps is the belief that the deaths of U.S. soldiers is God’s punishment for “the sin of homosexuality.”

Albert Snyder, Matthew’s father, said his son was not gay and the protesters should not have been at the funeral.

The case centers on Free Speech and whether the members of the church have the right to express their opinions at the funeral(s) of US Servicemen.  My question focuses not so much on the legality of the issue, but more on the ethics of their choices.

ETHICS defined is that branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions.

So here’s the question:

Is the free expression of a religious belief that interferes with comfort associated with a dignified funeral an “ethical” action?  If not, how does one reconcile ethics on one hand with free speech on the other?

Chime in and register your opinion!


Child Porn Law Upheld by Supreme Court! “Protecting Our Kids” Speaker Chuck Gallagher Comments

May 19, 2008

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the majority opinion for the Supreme Court in which they upheld the law aimed at preventing child pornography. Scalia called internet child porn a “threat.” He’s right. As a frequent speaker on teen ethics and computer crimes, it is clear that the internet is becoming a distribution haven for child porn and more importantly it is a playground for child predators.

A federal law, the “Protect” Act enacted in 2003 made it a crime not only to produce and possess child porn, but also to “pander” material, conveying the belief that material contains minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct. The pandering provision covers anyone who “advertises, promotes, presents, distributes, or solicits” this material.

According to CNN in a recent report: As part of a 2004 sting operation, an undercover Secret Service agent (using the screen name “Lisa–n–Miami”) communicated with Williams in an Internet chat room. Williams allegedly wrote, “Dad of toddler has ‘good’ pics of her an (sic) me for swap of your toddler pics, or live cam.” He posted nonpornographic photos of a young girl and claimed he had “hc,” or hard-core, kiddie pictures, prosecutors contend.

The man then allegedly posted photos of youngsters involved in “sexually explicit conduct,” according to court records. Twenty-two other child porn images were found on his home computer.

A federal appeals court upheld a possession conviction against Williams, but threw out the separate soliciting charge, which carried a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. A three-judge panel concluded the provision was “substantially overbroad and vague,” and that “non-commercial, non-inciteful promotion of illegal child pornography, even if repugnant, is protected free speech.” In other words, the judges said merely talking about child porn is not necessarily criminal.

Today’s ruling by the high Court upheld the law by ruling that a provision dealing with “pandering” illicit material does not violate constitutional protections on free speech. The ruling was 7 to 2.

Scalia stated, “Child pornography harms and debases the most defenseless of our citizens. This court held unconstitutional Congress’ previous attempt to meet this new threat, and Congress responded with a carefully crafted attempt to eliminate the First Amendment problems we [earlier] identified.”

There has been some concern that some people might be targeted unfairly when engaged in lawful, artistic or editorial free speech. Example were used among them were mainstream movies such as “Lolita,” “Traffic,” and “Titanic,” all of which depicted scenarios in which underage girls were engaging in simulated sex.

According to the AP – Justice David Souter, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissented. Souter said promotion of images that are not real children engaging in pornography still could be the basis for prosecution under the law. Possession of those images, on the other hand, may not be prosecuted, Souter said.

“I believe that maintaining the First Amendment protection of expression we have previously held to cover fake child pornography requires a limit to the law’s criminalization of pandering proposals,” Souter said.

The reality is child porn is too easy to get and in so many ways our children aren’t protected. Odd, but the profile of a person convicted of child porn is – ANYONE. Most recently a Plano, Texas minister who was arrested in an internet sex sting operation has resigned his position as a pastor at a Dallas-area megachurch. Joe Barron was charged with solicitation of a minor. The solicitation was via the internet.

As a white collar crime speaker, unlike traditional forms of white collar crime, convictions related to Child Porn seem to carry far greater sentences and long term consequences. One of the most significant things that parents can do is become educated. Child porn is more accessible via the internet and that – THE INTERNET – is where parents need education. Social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook and others are not dangerous on the whole, but Child Predators can use those mediums as a way to deceive and commit their crimes. I teach seminars and workshops on cyber-crime and what every parent should know to protect their children.

If you or your organization is interested in my newest program – PROTECTING OUR KIDS: What Every Parent Should Know About Computer Crimes – contact me at

Jailhouse Lawyer Being Investigated – Guess He Ticked Off the South Carolina Attorney General

February 27, 2008

Just when you think you’ve made history – some “better than thou” Attorney General steps up to put you back down again. Any surprise that this is coming from South Carolina. Somehow I don’t see that as a tolerant state – at least not for Michael Ray!

Michael Ray – not a household name – is a federal inmate in the State of South Carolina. What is significant about Mr. Ray – he helped fellow inmate Lavon Burgess appeal his conviction for possession of crack cocaine with the intent to distribute. O.K., so Ray is a “jailhouse lawyer” – not a lawyer by license, but a lay person who has a knack for the law.


Oh, but there’s more! The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear on March 24, the appeal where Burgess is arguing that a prior drug conviction prosecutors used to get him the 20-year minimum prison sentence shouldn’t have applied because it was a misdemeanor instead of a felony. Conflicting court rulings have required 10-year sentences for people already convicted of misdemeanors, so a successful appeal could trim Burgess’ sentence in half.

Stop! So let this sink in – a 29 cent an hour felon who is a member of the American Bar Association and a certified paralegal, helped another inmate file an appeal that is being heard by the United States Supreme Court! Is that cool or what?

Stanford University law professor Jeff Fisher will argue Burgess’ case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Legal experts estimate the high court agrees to hear less than 1 percent of the thousands of cases it receives each year.

Now, according to Rauch Wise, a South Carolina lawyer who represents Ray, the authorities are looking into whether Ray is guilty of unauthorized practice, a crime that carries up to two years in prison and a $5,000 fine. South Carolina’s Attorney General Henry McMaster is investigating Ray for practicing law without a license.

Sorry, but McMaster is just wrong – both legally and ethically!

Federal Bureau of Prison regulations state, “an inmate may assist another inmate … with legal research and the preparation of legal documents for submission to a court or other judicial body.” And in his letters, Ray cited a U.S. Supreme Court case he said illustrated rights bestowed upon prison law clerks.

In Johnson v. Avery, the court in 1969 sided with a Tennessee prisoner who argued he had been improperly disciplined for helping another inmate prepare legal documents, ruling that prison officials could not deprive prisoners of such assistance.

A September Ohio Supreme Court decision could foreshadow Ray’s fate, said Michael Frisch, ethics counsel and adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center. The justices narrowly upheld an inmate’s right to draft legal documents for other prisoners because there was no “reasonable alternative” to their services.

As an ethics speaker, I am not proud of my past – I did spend time in federal prison – and if it were not for prison “jailhouse” lawyers, many would have no chance at any reasonable legal representation. Not that all jailhouse lawyers are good, but how, otherwise, would an inmate gain protection of their rights?

Oh…stop. I can hear some saying…what rights? Inmates are inmates and have no rights! Right? Wrong!

What if Burgess is overturned…then with Ray’s help many will find that they will have reduced sentences based on the opinion of the highest court in the land.

My suggestion…leave Ray alone and give him the benefit of seeing where this Supreme Court ruling lands.

Your Comments?

Tax Protesters / Resisters “Read Here” – Wesley Snipes and T. Milton Street are NOT EXAMPLES!

February 18, 2008

While I fully expect to get comments about how dumb I am and what I don’t know (feel free to post comments if you feel they are relevant), the fact is – you don’t file or pay because you don’t think you have to – dumb move. You will pay and you will file or you will go to prison. Oh, an if you go to prison, as part of the requirement to get that “get out of jail (it ain’t free) card” you’ll file and pay!

Just in case you think I do not know what I am talking about read below:

CHEEK v. UNITED STATES, 498 U.S. 192 (1991)

498 U.S. 192

No. 89-658

Argued October 3, 1990
Decided January 8, 1991

Petitioner Cheek was charged with six counts of willfully failing to file a federal income tax return in violation of 7203 of the Internal Revenue Code (Code) and three counts of willfully attempting to evade his income taxes in violation of 7201. Although admitting that he had not filed his returns, he testified that he had not acted willfully because he sincerely believed, based on his indoctrination by a group believing that the federal tax system is unconstitutional and his own study, that the tax laws were being unconstitutionally enforced and that his actions were lawful. In instructing the jury, the court stated that an honest but unreasonable belief is not a defense, and does not negate willfulness, and that Cheek’s beliefs that wages are not income and that he was not a taxpayer within the meaning of the Code were not objectively reasonable. It also instructed the jury that a person’s opinion that the tax laws violate his constitutional rights does not constitute a good-faith misunderstanding of the law. Cheek was convicted, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.


    1. A good-faith misunderstanding of the law or a good-faith belief that one is not violating the law negates willfulness, whether or not the claimed belief or misunderstanding is objectively reasonable. Statutory willfulness, which protects the average citizen from prosecution for innocent mistakes made due to the complexity of the tax laws, United States v. Murdock, 290 U.S. 389 , is the voluntary, intentional violation of a known legal duty. United States v. Pomponio, 429 U.S. 10 . Thus, if the jury credited Cheek’s assertion that he truly believed that the Code did not treat wages as income, the Government would not have carried its burden to prove willfulness, however unreasonable a court might deem such a belief. Characterizing a belief as objectively unreasonable transforms what is normally a factual inquiry into a legal one, thus preventing a jury from considering it. And forbidding a jury to consider evidence that might negate willfulness would raise a serious question under the Sixth Amendment’s jury trial provision, which this interpretation of the statute avoids. Of course, in deciding whether to credit Cheek’s claim, the jury is free to consider any admissible evidence showing that he had knowledge of his legal duties. Pp. 199-204. [498 U.S. 192, 193]
    2. It was proper for the trial court to instruct the jury not to consider Cheek’s claim that the tax laws are unconstitutional, since a defendant’s views about the tax statutes’ validity are irrelevant to the issue of willfulness, and should not be heard by a jury. Unlike the claims in the Murdock-Pomponio line of cases, claims that Code provisions are unconstitutional do not arise from innocent mistakes caused by the Code’s complexity. Rather, they reveal full knowledge of the provisions at issue and a studied conclusion that those provisions are invalid and unenforceable. Congress could not have contemplated that a taxpayer, without risking criminal prosecution, could ignore his duties under the Code and refuse to utilize the mechanisms Congress provided to present his invalidity claims to the courts and to abide by their decisions. Cheek was free to pay the tax, file for a refund, and, if denied, present his claims to the courts. Also, without paying the tax, he could have challenged claims of tax deficiencies in the Tax Court. Pp. 204-207.

JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Title 26, 7201 of the United States Code provides that any person “who willfully attempts in any manner to evade or defeat any tax imposed by this title or the payment thereof” shall be guilty of a felony. Under 26 U.S.C. 7203, “[a]ny person required under this title . . . or by regulations made under authority thereof to make a return . . . who willfully fails to . . . make such return” shall be guilty of a misdemeanor. [498 U.S. 192, 194] This case turns on the meaning of the word “willfully” as used in 7201 and 7203.

Comments: As a white collar crime and business ethics speaker ( I have to wonder just how many people are going to get caught up in the illusion that somehow paying taxes will disappear – that somehow their feeble attempt at this worn out old argument will be decided differently. Give it up and file and pay your taxes. Trust me on one thing – time in federal prison isn’t fun and not worth it for the statement you’re making.

Business ethics speaker – Chuck Gallagher – off for now.