Was Star’s LED Star Protected Speech?
Star A. Simpson ’10, who faces charges of possessing a hoax device, came back to the East Boston District Court last Friday, Feb. 1 for a pretrial hearing. At the hearing, her attorney asked the court to dismiss the case. The judge said that he would rule on that motion on March 21, The Associated Press reported.
The charges against Simpson stem from an incident on Sept. 21, 2007 when she walked into Logan International Airport wearing a circuit board covered by light-emitting diodes forming a star. A Logan information desk worker mistook her circuit board for a bomb, and Simpson was arrested at gunpoint outside the airport.
The arrest drew national attention and comparisons to the January 2007 bomb scare, when Boston police mistook as bombs dozens of small light-up boards, displaying cartoon characters, that had been scattered throughout the city as part of a Cartoon Network promotional campaign.
At Friday’s hearing, Simpson’s attorney, Thomas Dwyer Jr., argued for a motion to dismiss on the grounds that wearing the circuit board was free expression protected under the First Amendment. “People make these objects part of their identity. It’s a part of their personal expression,” said Dwyer, according to the AP.
Dwyer’s claim was bolstered by an affidavit from Rosalind W. Picard ScD ’91, Director of Affective Computing Research at the MIT Media Laboratory. In the affidavit, Picard wrote that wearable electronics — such as Simpson’s circuit board – are “commonplace in society” and “a method of self expression, fusing art and engineering.” The affidavit also says that schools are trying to “encourage girls … to undertake the study of electronics” and that one effort by a University of Colorado at Boulder professor “encourage[s] young women to create clothing-worn electronic technologies.”
Simpson’s attorney additionally argued that the device was not a hoax device because it consisted of “separate components” and the device was disconnected when Simpson left the terminal.
The district attorney has challenged the motion to dismiss, arguing in a petition that the device Simpson wore “would cause a person reasonably to believe that such device was an infernal machine.” (See the prosecution’s motion on page 8.)
Chapter 266 of Massachusetts Law, under which Simpson is being charged, requires prosecutors prove Simpson transported a “hoax device or hoax substance with the intent to cause anxiety, unrest, fear or personal discomfort to any person or group of persons.”
The arguments given by Simpson’s attorney and the district attorney concern whether Simpson’s light-up circuit board constitutes a “hoax device,” not whether Simpson intended to cause anxiety. Dwyer said in September that he firmly believed there was no evidence to support intent to cause anxiety and that “there is not a crime here.” “It’s not a crime in Massachusetts to exercise bad judgment,” Dwyer said.
The Simpson case is filed under docket number 0705-CR-1905. A copy of Rosalind W. Picard’s affidavit is available on The Tech’s Web site at http://www-tech.mit.edu/V128/N1/simpson/.