Sunday, September 18, 2011

Harassment? Or intimidation?

Last night (Sat., 9/17), I went to the BYU/Utah rivalry game in Provo, UT, home of Brigham Young University, with two friends I had devised a trivia sports-sized card to hand out at BYU football games. On the one side are four Cougar football trivia questions, with the gospel message written specifically for Mormons on the back. Obviously, 90%+ of all BYU fans are LDS, so this type of card is appropriate for the culture, written in a similar manner as MRM's Joseph Smith million dollar bill.

Just as we did during the baseball season, we joined hands with a national campaign based in Texas that targeted dozens of home opener college and professional football teams. Our ministry, MRM, is representing Provo. There were a total of three of us who went to the game to hand out the tracts. 

We got to the evening event three and a half hours early so we could get a good parking spot and began handing out right away. During the first two hours, we gave away more than a thousand cards, but an hour and a half before game time, it became really busy. We stood on two public street corners near the stadium, waiting for the light to turn green. Dozens of people would then stream across both sides of the street. We gave the cards away by holding them out and saying, "Free Cougar trivia cards." When we had enough breath, we would even say "Christian message on the back." Literally, though, it was enough just to pass out more than a dozen cards for each green light, and it was getting busier each light.

Around 6 p.m., I had a burly BYU campus police officer approach me. "Excuse me, sir," he said in a gruff voice. "I'm going to have to ask you to move." 

"Why is that, officer?" I replied.

"You're on BYU property. I'm going to have to ask you to move across the street."

"Officer, there's no room for me over there." This is because there was a souvenir stand, ticket scalpers, and hordes of people all over the place, with hardly anywhere to stand. I wouldn't have even gotten out half that I could where I currently was. Besides, I was standing on the corner of a public street, so I was within my legal rights.

"Who told you that you could stand there?" he continued.

"The city did, sir. It's a public street and I have every right to be here." I pointed to the public street in front of BYU's stadium, which is shut down for the games so people can cross without looking. I remembered from the previous year that I couldn't stand here and be closer to the gates because this is apparently considered private property. The officer just stared at me, as it was obvious that he was used to getting his way. In fact, I found out soon after that he had moved my friends Randy and Daniel just minutes before by using the same tactic.

"OK, then do you mind if I stand right here," he said, putting himself two feet in front of me and standing in my way so it would be difficult to hand the cards to the oncoming crowd. 

"Officer, stand wherever you like." I merely backed up and still got the cards out, frustrating him. He then moved behind me and stood, lurking over me, before leaving a few minutes later.

Now, mind you, this isn't the first time an LDS security guard or a city's police officer have tried intimidation tactics with me. I've been threatened with arrest at least a dozen times over the years, doing nothing more than standing on public property and handing out literature. I am so glad that I am a citizen of the United States, with the freedom of speech given to me and all Americans. But sometimes, Provo doesn't feel like it's in the United States.

Last December, an off-duty police officer tried to arrest Santa Claus (my friend Randy) and Buddy the Elf (me) last December in Provo. Santa and Buddy held their ground, and when the police sergeant showed up in his squad car, he confirmed that we were within our rights. Please don't think I'm disrespectful. I'm anything but. But when it comes to the First Amendment, I'm willing to go to jail, if I have to, if I know I'm within my rights. Perhaps this is why I have not yet been arrested. It may happen some day, but despite the many promises I would see the inside of a jail cell, I still haven't seen the inside of a squad car.

But wait. My ordeal with authorities in Provo wasn't over. Just a half hour after the BYU officer left, another gentleman about 60 years old walked up to me and literally put his face within six inches of mine. This guy was going to be tougher, I could tell right away, and he wasn't happy.

"Excuse me, but why are you handing out these cards?" he demanded.

"Officer, I am offering them to anyone who wants them. I'm not impeding anyone's way to get by."

"But this is copyright infringement." The man, who informed me that he was Provo's police chief (it said so on his collar), pointed to the corner of the card where, in about 4 pt font (go type that on your computer and see how small it is), it reads "BYU trivia." He continued, "Did you know what you're doing is illegal? I could have you arrested right now. You wouldn't want that, would you?"

I tried to look closely at the lettering. It is literally so small that it's just impossible to clearly read, it's that small. My mind raced. What do I do now? So I asked the obvious question, "What is it you want me to do?"

"You'll need to leave, now."

"I can't do that, officer."

"Well, then, you'll have to suffer the consequences."

I didn't feel completely confident on this one. What if he was right? What if our tract's printer had inadvertently taken a BYU emblem off the Internet. If it was the same font, then it could be a problem. 

However, something just didn't feel right. After all, why would a city police chief be worried about copyright infringement? Isn't that something the campus police would handle? After thinking it through for a minute, I blurted out, "You're only doing this because you don't like our message."

"What message?" he asked in a somewhat convincing way, though it felt like a lie the second he said it. After all, he was harassing us for a 4 pt font three-letter word on the corner of our card but didn't know about the Gospel message on the other side? If it wasn't for this message, would I really get harassed? Please, I wasn't born yesterday.

Then he made a suggestion that, at the time, sounded like my only way out. "If you stay here and hand these out, then you'll need to tear the corners off and take away the emblem." 

"OK," I responded, then that's what I'll do." So I began to tear the tiniest corner section from each of the cards while I waited for the light to change so I could continue my job. (Ironically, and catch this, on the other side of the emblem is the word "death" in red ink! Can you imagine!)

I quickly realized that I couldn't tear enough cards to meet the demand of the oncoming crowds. Then I looked a little closer at the emblem's font. The Y in "BYU" was a standard font--in fact, I found out later from my printer that it is Poplar Std, which is common in Adobe typesets. It was nothing close to the fonts I was seeing pass by me in tshirts, sweatshirts, and hats. Lights and sirens went off. This was not copyright infringement, in the least. I was elated. I ran across the street to the other two guys (who were patiently tearing cards, as I had been) and told them to stop. Just start handing them out again and don't worry about tearing the edges. We were back in business.

I returned to my spot, fully expecting another confrontation with the police. They had positioned two security officers right behind me, watching my every move. (It would have been a great day to have practiced one's thievery in Provo that day, as there were dozens of officers who looked like they were pretty good just standing around.) If the officer(s) did return, I was ready. I would let them do whatever they wanted with me, but I was going to hand out cards until we were done. Nothing was going to stop us.

The rest of the story?  I was never approached again for the last hour. I think they knew that intimidation is a great tactic and it usually works. But they had no leg to stand on in a return visit. 

In the next two weeks, Randy and I will make a visit to the Provo city offices and ask about the legality of where we were standing. We want written proof that we are legally right to hand out our cards on the public street corners. We're also going to make contact with an attorney to verify the copyright infringement complaint. I'm sure he will find everything in order. 

Then we plan to hand out more cards in a game two weeks from now. We're guessing we'll get harassed again. We're counting on it. But we're going to feel confident that, because we're on American soil, we have every right to share our faith. And if they want to cart us off to jail, we're willing to take the chance. When you stand up for truth, people won't always like it. But we must do so if, for nothing more, to make a point that intimidation is not OK, even if it is Provo.

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