FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
NEW YORK -- Federal law enforcement officials sidestepped the Constitution when they suppressed a short film about a secret military takeover of Times Square on New Year's Eve that they knew to be fictional, the American Civil Liberties Union charged in a lawsuit today.
Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. District Attorney's office in New York briefly shut down a website displaying the film by pressuring video artist Mike Zieper of New Jersey and his web host Mark Wieger, a Michigan businessman.
In its complaint, the ACLU charges that government agents engaged in an officially sanctioned "policy and practice" of suppressing constitutionally protected speech and due process rights when they sought to censor the film. The lawsuit seeks financial damages and a court declaration that the government acted unlawfully.
"As a result of the government's actions, an artist has experienced censorship and intimidation, and a businessman has been forced to choose between his rights and his livelihood," said Ann Beeson, a staff attorney with the ACLU national office, which filed the case together with the ACLU of New Jersey.
"If these agents had been around when Orson Welles broadcast ÎWar of the Worlds,' perhaps they would have shut down the radio station that aired the program," she added, referring to the 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells' sci-fi horror tale that some listeners believed to be a live news story.
Zieper, 39, who is known professionally as "Mike Z," said he feared he might be arrested when FBI agents telephoned him last month about the six-minute video he had posted on his website, crowdedtheater.com. He was immediately concerned for his two young children, whom he cares for at home during the day while his wife works, and after a brief conversation decided not to answer any more questions without legal advice.
The "Military Takeover" film is part of a body of work created by Zieper which, though fictional, purports to depict real events. Zieper explained that he intentionally does not include credits or other "framing" devices in his films. "It is comforting to be told that something is Îonly a movie,' but the problems that this video addresses can not be wished away with the promise of a hero and a happy ending."
The film, he said, raises issues about people's fears of the upcoming millennium, the distrust many Americans have for their government, and the use of racial hatred to manipulate the American people.
"Ironically," Zieper added, "I was trying to provoke thought about Y2K issues that concern all of us, including some people's belief that our government is hostile to its citizens. What happened to me is a prime example of why some people think that way."
After contacting Zieper, agents from the FBI and U.S. Attorney's office then tracked down his web host Mark Wieger, 38, saying they were concerned the tape could start a race riot and that people might show up at Times Square armed with weapons.
The agents said they wanted to stop people from seeing the video and remained on the line while Wieger disabled the site. Since that time, Wieger said, he has received thousands of insulting e-mails --known as "flames" -- from irate computer users who learned of the incident from a Village Voice article and other online news reports.
"I feel like I got a double-whammy -- first, the FBI pressures me to remove Mike Z's site, then the Internet community flames me and my clients, even after I repost the web page," Wieger said. "The FBI misled me into believing that I could be prosecuted, and as a result my business and my reputation have been damaged."
The ACLU acknowledged that law enforcement officials have legitimate concerns about actual violent incidents in connection with the new millennium. But using government powers to suppress clearly protected works of fiction violates the First Amendment.
"I think we can all agree that we want the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to take very seriously any threat to people's safety," said J.C. Salyer, a staff attorney for the ACLU of New Jersey. "But censoring artists doesn't take us any further towards that goal."
The case is Zieper v. Reno, filed on behalf of Mike Z. of Caldwell, N.J. and Mark Wieger and his company, BECamation, based in Edwardsburg, Mich. Defendants in the case are U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, FBI Director Louis Freeh, U.S. Attorney Mary Joe White of the Southern District of New York, FBI Special Agent Joseph Metzinger, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Lisa Korologos.
The ACLU's legal complaint can be read online at http://archive.aclu.org/court/zieper_complaint.html.
MikeZ's website can be found at http://www.crowdedtheater.com.