February 12, 2004

No free speech for spam rage

USA Today reports that when Charles Booher got mad at a Canadian company that spammed him, and threatened to shoot or torture them and send them anthrax unless they removed him from an e-mail list, Federal agents turned up at his home and arrested him. He's looking at five years in jail and a fine of a quarter of a million dollars.

There but for the grace of God. I did something similar to an organization (EDUCAUSE) that had put the faculty list at my university on its spamming list. "Take me off this list," I wrote, "or I will hunt you down and kill you."

It was a literary allusion. The line is from a classic Saturday Night Live sketch about an imaginary high-tuition college that offered students a chance to take the majority of their parents' tuition payment back as a cash payment, go on vacation for four years, and receive a degree without taking any exams, provided they didn't tell their parents that the college had no faculty and no classes. "If you tell anyone," the students were told at orientation, "we will hunt you down and kill you."

I misjudged the people at EDUCAUSE. They're not SNL fans, apparently, because they were furious and said they would report me for threatening them, unless I was joking. "Of COURSE I'm joking, you morons," I told them quickly; and that's why I'm not in a Federal jail right now.

So: the spammers can spam us, and can send us anything they like --- about porn, gambling, dangerous surgical procedures, dubious dietary supplements, utterly illegal financial rip-offs --- but if we repay them in kind by sending them our free speech over the email channel, we go to the Federal penitentiary? It's a cruel world. There is nothing so cruel that I wouldn't use it against spammers if I could: if there was a button on my keyboard that sent a signal that made the sender of the current email message burst into flames at his keyboard, I'd be tapping that button several times a day, and bit by bit the spam problem would be solved. But we don't have that option. And apparently we don't have the option of sending them flaming, over-the-top, threatening messages, either.

Charles Booher didn't mean it, by the way. It was just a way to express his rage. We should all get together and start a defense fund for him. We could get a hundred million or so from a Nigerian guy who wrote me just the other day wanting to use my bank account for a fund transfer scheme...

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 12, 2004 11:18 PM