Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Read this while it's still legal

Seattle Times
Danny Westneat
Read this while it's still legal

As most of us toasted liberty and pursued happiness last week, Jim Harvill opened his mailbox and learned these rights are not as unalienable as he thought.

On July 3, Harvill, an affable operations manager for Sprint PCS near Spokane, got the following letter from the publisher of two magazines he has subscribed to for years. "It is with deep regret that we must inform you ... " it read, "we must cancel all subscriptions to Washington State."

The magazines are "Casino Player" — a monthly review of U.S. casinos and hotels — and "Strictly Slots" — a guide to one-armed bandits, video poker and other mechanized means of gambling.

Hardly classic literature. But Harvill liked them. And now he can no longer read them, thanks to a twisted reading of the state's new law against Internet gambling.

The state says placing bets online is against the law. Fine. But the state goes on to say that even writing about Internet gambling in a way that's promotional is "aiding and abetting" an illegal industry.

So now two print magazines consider themselves banned in this state. It's not clear whether the publisher pulled them on his own or was asked to by the state. The letter vaguely cites "new state laws regarding the legality of online gaming."

Mind you, no actual betting occurs via these magazines. People like Harvill buy them just to read about gambling.

"It's completely surreal," Harvill says. "My government is saying there is something I'm not allowed to read. I've lived in this country for 60 years and I can't remember anything like this happening to me before."

Well, it has certainly happened to others. Ask Larry Flynt. But it is almost never allowed to stand. Has to do with all that stuff we heard ad nauseam last week about independence and the freedom to think and speak as we want.

The nation's birthday week was a dark one for the most unruly and inconvenient of our freedoms, expression.

We learned that a high-school band in Everett had been barred from playing "Ave Maria" because the song is too religious. This is as baffling as if an art class were not permitted to study Michelangelo.

And then a Fort Lewis Army officer, who was properly accused of refusing to ship out to Iraq, was inexplicably charged for saying "contemptuous words against the President of the United States."

Lt. Ehren Watada had said the president misled us into a war that, in retrospect, was a mistake. Shocking! Even in the military, how can stating the obvious be a jailable offense?

I realize there are arguments for all these clampdowns. Still, it ought to give us pause that in one Fourth of July week we had two magazines banned in the state, one song muzzled in a school district and a slew of words outlawed in the military.

Would a confident people do this to themselves?

Oh, well. So we can't read up on Internet betting. Students can't play songs about Jesus' mother. Soldiers can't call the president a charlatan.

If we all get really bored, at least we can still burn the flag.

Danny Westneat's column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or