Respect citizens’ rights regardless of their idle drawings

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Imagine being an artist with an idea for a project.
Now imagine sketching out your plan, heading to Canada for the Cultural Capital Festival in New Brunswick to present your project, and being stopped on the way back by Customs and Border Protection agents because you were suspected of copyright infringement for a creative project that you’d thought of on your own.

This is exactly what happened to artist and Fordham University professor Jerilea Zempel, who was detained at the border between New Brunswick, Canada and Houlton, Maine this past summer because her sketchbook contained a sketch of a typical sport utility vehicle (SUV).

Zempel was originally found to be suspicious because she had traveled to so many other countries, but what the agent ultimately decided to look into was the sketch of her most recent art project. The sketch was done in black pen and depicted no logos, no brands, and no identifying features relating to a specific brand. In fact, the final art project covered the vehicle in a blanket, making it impossible to see a brand even in the final phase. The sketch was what Zempel describes as a “cartoon” sketch of a vehicle — certainly not something most would find suspicious.

While it’s good that border patrol agents are on the lookout for would-be scammers trying to pass off others’ ideas as their own, a situation like this may mean that such agents are taking their dedication a little too far. The sketch, which contained no detailed information about any particular SUV, was harmless. In a loose, crochet-like sketching style, the image depicted the general shape of an SUV with a blanket-like cover, a plan for an art project she had just presented in which she aimed to depict the overuse of big cars and foreign oil in Western society.

Zempel was detained for over an hour at the Houlton checkpoint as all of her belongings were examined by the border patrol agents. While the government agents were just doing their jobs, it seems a little excessive to have gone through Zempel’s entire car full of items, including her laptop and cell phone, over a misunderstanding regarding a drawing of a generic SUV.

Agents supposedly have training in intellectual property policies, but the adequacy of such training has to be questioned when such an innocent sketch leads to so much trouble. There were no logos in the drawing, and there was no detailed information about the construction of the vehicle or what went into making it.

Even if Zempel had planned to sell the sketch — which was not indicated at the time — it is unclear who such a sale would actually hurt or exactly which copyright she had infringed upon. Because there were no logos or clear indication of which — if any — brand of SUV was being represented in the casual drawing, it would be difficult for anyone to say that she had stolen his or her specific idea. The shape of an SUV is similar among many car producers, and Zempel’s generic drawing could not be said to be based on one specific model or another.

This situation was made worse by the violation of Zempel’s privacy. Without the need for any warrant from a court, border patrol agents were able to seize and search through all of Zempel’s files for evidence to support their suspicion that her drawing was indeed a case of copyright infringement.

It is wrong that border patrol agents are able to act on such wild suspicions, which may or may not be founded in concrete fact, and search through someone’s private files without even discussing the issue in court, where a judge would be able to determine whether searching through the files would be reasonable. The right to privacy and protection against unreasonable search and seizure has its basis in the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, so why is it then acceptable for these agents to search files without going through the usual process required for such an action?

The simple answer is that such accusation and disrespect for a citizen’s privacy rights aren’t acceptable in any case. Before agents are able to search electronic devices like Zempel’s laptop and digital camera, they should be required to go through the proper legal channels. If they really have a substantiated reason for performing such a search, then they likely won’t encounter problems obtaining a warrant — and thus shouldn’t disregard the established system. A person’s rights should not be violated simply because border patrol agents think they know what’s best.

Regardless of the case, no citizen should be stripped of his or her rights at arbitrary points in time, for arbitrary reasons. The Constitution is something we collectively hold to be important, and under no circumstances should its rights be taken away. This is one of the best parts of America. We have rights that all citizens have, even those suspected of committing crimes.

The judicial system is organized so that violations of these rights do not happen. When certain agencies are allowed to take shortcuts that result in the loss of rights, the system is undermined. It is important that we enforce the protection of citizens’ rights.