In response to my post on the feds’ seizing the trademarks of the Mongols, a motorcycle gang, in order to be able to harass anybody wearing a Mongols patch on his motorcycle jacket, I received a letter from George Christie, who rejoices in the title of president emeritus of the Ventura chapter of Hell’s Angels. Writes Mr. Christie:
Questionable tactic, indeed. The move by the U. S. Attorney to confiscate intellectual property troubles me. I have been a leader and spokesman for the Ventura Hells Angels, for over 30 years. The government’s latest actions are not surprising. … I am no stranger to the legal system, and at times enjoyed watching our first-string attorneys work their magic. I have played this cat-and-mouse game for almost four decades. This has now gone beyond the bounds of career-hungry servants of the public. This is an attack on the very fabric … the Constitution was written on.
I am all for prosecuting criminal enterprises, and the Mongols are by accounts a particularly nasty one. But the trademark tactic is troubling because it could be used to squelch legitimate forms of communication and protest. Imagine, for instance, an attempt to raise money for the legal defense of gang members (begging Mr. Christie’s pardon, I will forgo the convention of referring to these organizations as “clubs”) using the organization’s traditional insignia. Likewise, newsletters and other forms of communication would be subject to suppression. Seizing intellectual property seems an odd strategy in a case in which there are other more robust options on the table, including capital punishment — murder is among the charges being brought.
In this regard, the case calls to mind the horrific murder of James Byrd, a black Texan who was dragged to death behind a pick-up truck driven by beasts. The NAACP and others savaged George W. Bush for declining to support hate-crimes statutes in the wake of Byrd’s murder. But of the three men involved in the crime, two have been sentenced to death and one to life in prison; Texas is not famously hesistant to hand down death sentences, and Governor Bush made it abundantly (perhaps superabundantly) clear that he was willing to sign as many death warrants as the times demanded. Hate-crimes laws are a tricky business because they have the effect of criminalizing unpopular opinions. Those opinions may be odious and deserve to be unpopular, but it’s problematic to hand down additional punishments because criminals hold particular views. Why involve yourself in the fraught business of trying to decide which motives for murder are better than others when you have so many other weapons in your prosecutorial arsenal?
Likewise, in the Mongols case, why even invite legitimate disputes about expression and free-speech rights when you’re going to be trying these guys for murder? Why bother about jacket patches when you can strap these guys to gurneys?