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Fake Professor Sirlin Teaches Law

Here's a long article about my adventures as a guest lecturer at a law school.

I'm always telling my lawyer friends that I'm sort of a civil rights lawyer, just without the piece of paper saying so. There was a moot court in San Francisco where law students argued a free speech case a while ago. I really loved that case because it was a real test of who actually believed in free speech and who just paid lip-service too it. The free speech involved was unpopular and took place at a public school, which is government property. The (fake) authority at the school was trying to supersede the actual authority of the US Constitution, but it took some fire in your gut to really believe in the free speech side. I believe that side had the stronger case, if you looked closely.

I knew some of the judges involved in the moot court and asked if I could be a judge or a lawyer. They said no, that only real lawyers or law students are allowed. I said I'd challenge any one of then to a "debate-off" and that we should choose it by actual merit rather than who has a piece of paper. I was mostly kidding because of course they would say no, and they did say no. The judges later told me the students on the pro-free speech side didn't have arguments as good as mine, so they had to find for the other side.

But then later, another opportunity came up, this time about the 4th Amendment, or what's left of it. That's the one saying that the government can't do unreasonable search and seizures, and that there is some concept of privacy. You might be unaware that the 4th Amendment is a hollow shell of its former self. The government currently has unlimited power to search any and all of your possessions (including everything other than the human body) with no suspicion or reason whatsoever if you are at an airport or a border. Yeah, I really mean that.

And if unlimited search power at borders (and airports) was not enough, this now--somehow--extends to searches taking place with in 100 miles from a border. I would think that crossing a border is a trajectory, not a position. For example, I life near San Francisco, so as I type this, I am 100 miles from a border and I qualify for the no-rights search even though my activities have nothing to do with border crossing. In fact, almost 2/3rds of the entire US population lives in this "constitution-free zone," as the ACLU (rightly) calls it. This is not the kind of "protection" I'm looking for from a government. Quite the contrary--the kind of protection I'm looking for comes from the US Constitution.

This issue hinges on a case called United States vs. Arnold, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation thinks the finding of that case is a crazy as I do.

If you want this to feel a little more personal, here's an actual US citizen who can tell you about it.

Anyway, my goal was to help the law students think critically enough about these issues that they'd be prepared to question the validity of questionable searches. Maybe one of them will grow up to be a judge someday and defend our rights. Here's that really long article again.


Reader Comments (13)


November 20, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterShadrin

According to this
They only have the right if they have reason to believe that you recently crossed a border and reasonable suspicion of out of country contraband. Its there to help customs, but it does intrude on us a little.

November 20, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterstew

The judges later told me the students on the pro-free speech side didn't have arguments as good as mine, so they had to find for the other side.

Yeah, it's crazy how well a little interest, rational thought, and philosophy seems to work :P

November 21, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterWinter

It's really awesome that you get to be a bit of a professor (yet at the same time less awesome you need to spend so many years at law school, whether you deserve it or not)
I'm glad you post this, even though it's not completely about game design.

November 21, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRobert August de Meijer

Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both. (by Benjamin Franklin.)

Quoted for truth...

November 21, 2008 | Unregistered Commentersuiraclaw

Am I reading too much into this, or does this have something to do with why you left Backbone?... or is your next career move to become a law professor? :)

November 21, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAbdul

"Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both. (by Benjamin Franklin.)

Quoted for truth..."

Terrible quote. If you lived in a state where you feared to do something as simple as cross the street or go to the market because of wayward violence, you'd be surprised what kind of compromises you'd be willing to make. Ben Franklin might've been a genius, but he wasn't so prescient that he could predict how the world would look like today.

Added by Sirlin: I violently disagree with your comment.

November 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJack

The funny thing is that when I saw the whole "Constitution-free zone" map, I thought it was some sort of overview of where activist judges that freely remodel the constitution to fit their ideologies were located.

November 26, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

The BF quote is fake.

November 26, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMJW

"They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

This is the real quote. Note the word "essential".

November 26, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMJW

I actually researched the quote before posting it. My version did returnquite a bit of results. Hope that clears it up why I posted the "wrong" quote. My apologies...

Either way, I find the liberty sacrificed by the American laws more then essential.

November 26, 2008 | Unregistered Commentersuiraclaw

The moment that you leave from maxims agrumention becomes very hard. I'm not in the mood for a fight. As I said before I really do not repesct the US court system. I think Bush's actions were annoying but they were reflexive of treads and not revolutionary.

November 26, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMJW

Sirlin, to be fair, I read the "fake" Ben Franklin quote and wrote my interpretation based on how it was written. The corrected one that MJW posted I find far more agreeable and don't really have a strong reaction to it in general.

But getting back to my point, I often wonder if many people (Franklin included) who can make such confident statements as the above (there are law abiding people out there that don't deserve liberty and safety? news to me...) have truly had to worry about their own personal security. There are a lot of people around the world who live in constant fear for their lives. Granted, I don't know any personally, but it's pretty obvious they exist whenever I open my web browser and read news. And if they want their kids and themselves to live long healthy lives and are willing to make sacrifices (even unreasonable sacrifices), can we really blame them? It's up to us to determine the appropriate level of compromise between safety and security, but I think we can all agree that any functional society will have to make compromises.

Anyway, I'm not saying I disagree with anyone about the specific issue you presented about the borders. I just wanted to clarify my general point.

November 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJack
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