The Prying Game

America was once a country that had something called the Bill of Rights. Now it's a country where you have to piss in a cup to get a menial job, where you can be locked up for months on end without having been convicted of any crime, and where freedom is becoming more and more a quaint detail of history.

Arizona in particular bears more than a passing resemblance to the former Soviet Union. You can now be persecuted not just for what you do, but for what goes on inside your head.

Anyone who thinks I'm exaggerating should pay a visit to Sea of Green Hydroponics in Tempe. It's a store that sells gardening equipment. Its owner, Treg Bradley, says his customers include NASA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the City of Dallas and Peoria High School.

The U.S. District Court recently issued the store a subpoena. Bradley has been ordered to hand over names, addresses and phone numbers of customers who have purchased equipment for growing plants and vegetables indoors. He's also supposed to give the same information about customers who've bought the book Marijuana Hydroponics. This last should be easy, as Bradley claims he doesn't carry that book.

Aside from the purposes suggested by the book, what is the equipment used for? "Herbs, fresh basil, thyme, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, flowers, strawberries," says Bradley.

The subpoena was originally sent to his parents. "They're just limited partners [in Sea of Green]," he says. "They don't have access to the records. They were commanded to appear before the grand jury--so they went, and there was no grand jury! Assistant U.S. attorney John Stevens said it was a tactic to make them comply."

Then Bradley received an identical subpoena. He was supposed to rat out his customers on December 2.

He didn't.
The American Civil Liberties Union got him a lawyer, Nick Hentoff, to fight the subpoena. Stevens dropped the subpoena, but told Bradley he was doing so on condition that he cooperate with such requests in the future. So, the deal is that Bradley won't be forced to hand over his customer records as long as he hands over details of specific customers if asked to.

If the request is made, will the store comply? "No," says Sea of Green's operations manager, Kayla Sharp.

Bradley explains, "We don't feel that the government has any right of access to our customer records. I don't even know why they're picking on us--what about Home Depot, Tip Top Nurseries, all the other gardening stores? We're a legitimate operation. We've been in business for six years.

"This is un-American. It's Big Brother tactics."
The ACLU's Eleanor Eisenburg agrees.
"Buying books and buying gardening equipment is not a crime. In our view, by asking the shop to provide the names of people who have purchased these things, they are infringing on the shop owner's proprietary interest in the list, the shop owner's privacy, the First Amendment rights of the shop owner, and the First Amendment and privacy rights of the people who are making these purchases. You can buy this book at Borders. You can buy this gardening equipment at Home Depot or Kmart."

When I called and asked prosecutor John Stevens why the store had been singled out, and why the government wanted the list in the first place, he said he wasn't allowed to comment.

Al Reilly, the Drug Enforcement Administration agent behind it all, never returned my calls. "It was just a fishing expedition," says Nick Hentoff.

Bradley believes that most of his customers buy equipment from him for legit gardening purposes.

"If there are customers who're using it for illegal purposes, we don't condone it," he says. "But it's out of our hands."

Bradley claims that business improved after news accounts of the government's dragnet appeared. "I've had senior citizens come in from Sun City and drop $500 on a hydroponic unit," Bradley says. "Our business about doubled."

While it's entertaining to imagine Sun City as a commune of bong-toking geriatrics, what the customers do with the equipment is not relevant. It wouldn't matter in this issue if every single customer of the store was a drug kingpin (as opposed to the tomato kingpins Bradley says he serves). This issue is about the right to knowledge. The government is attempting to harass these people not for something they're doing, but for something they have the knowledge of how to do.

Thought is not action. On my shelf at home, I have a copy of Mein Kampf. I'm not a Nazi. I have The Communist Manifesto. I'm not a communist. I have books by the Marquis de Sade. I'm not a sadist. I have a book that tells you how to manufacture LSD. I've never done so. I have books that tell you how to blow up cars. I've never done that, either. I have a copy of Brian Masters' The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer. There are passages in the book that could be said to provide graphic instruction on dismembering bodies. There is a passage that describes how you can make a hole in the skull of a living person and pour LSD into his brain, turning him into a zombie. These are things I have never done and never would do. I also have some cookery books, and I'm not a very good cook.

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