Vital Signs

Speak No Evil

On January 11, 2001, 40-year-old Terence Hunter was arrested by the New York Police Department for writing a letter to Staten Island borough president Guy Molinari, criticizing him for closing a community center in a black neighborhood.  According to the New York Times, Hunter, a Staten Island resident, was charged with “aggravated harassment” because he called the center’s closing a “high-tech lynching” and his letter to Molinari included photographs of blacks being lynched.  Hunter was released the next day when the Staten Island district attorney’s office announced it was refusing to prosecute the case.  Molinari admitted that, although he found Hunter’s letter offensive, there was no threat involved.

An entirely different fate befell 69-year-old Englishman Robert Birchall in May 2000.  Birchall was convicted of “the public offense of using racially threatening or abusive words” and fined £100.  The magistrate told Birchall that the fine would have been much higher if he had had a “substantial income.”  Birchall, a retired academic, had allegedly told Mungai Mbaya (a British citizen born in Kenya) to “go back to your country” during a dispute in the Cambridge Central Library.  It seems that Mbaya had two newspapers in his possession at one time—contrary to an unwritten library rule—and Birchall...

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