A few years ago, in a small island town called Friday Harbor, Wash., an old woman was knocked to the ground by two young men. They broke her glasses. They stole her purse.
That might not get much attention in New York, but in Friday Harbor (population 2,000) it was big news, the way it used to be big news in your hometown, before everyone got cable.
The police had an idea who one of the punks might be, a 17-year-old named Oliver Christensen. They told people who knew him to be alert for any evidence. One of those people was Carmen Dixon, whose 14-year-old daughter was Christensen’s girlfriend.
Sure enough, the kid called Dixon’s house to talk to her daughter. And sure enough, he told her he knew where the snatched purse was, and that “they’ll never find it” because he hid it “across a ditch.”
How do we know? Dixon did what mothers have done since the invention of the telephone: She listened in on her daughter’s call. Thanks partly to that, Christensen was convicted of second-degree robbery.
But now a new trial’s been ordered.
He might have his own lawsuit.
The Washington Supreme Court ruled last week that the mother violated the kid’s privacy by eavesdropping on her daughter’s conversation.
Face it. We were all born too late.
Oh, if only I could have run to the lawyers every time my mother or father picked up the phone and squawked, “Who are you talking to?” If only I could have returned my parents’ scowling inquisitions with a threat to go to court because they were “prying into my business.”
Alas, I was raised in that long-ago era when mother and father were not only entitled to be parents, they were expected to be.
I was raised in an era when the mother would have been thanked, and the 14-year-old would have been warned about a 17-year-old boyfriend.
I was raised in an era when the bigger issue in this case would have been the old lady, her snatched purse, and the fact that a couple of thieves might have killed her.
Instead, privacy rights advocates are hailing the victory. The American Civil Liberties Union — a well-meaning organization that is often on the wrong end of common sense — filed a brief to support the thief.
“I don’t think the state should be … encouraging parents … to eavesdrop on their children,” said Douglas Klunder, an ACLU attorney. He suggested that Carmen Dixon could have controlled her teenager better “by restricting the use of the phone.”
Oh, yeah. That works.
Where was this guy when my father — and every father I knew — said: “If you’re living under my roof, you’re living by my rules.”
Uh, who paid for the phone?
Remember, this was a 14-year-old we’re talking about, not some live-at-home college graduate. Any mom who ever asked a 14-year-old to voluntarily share information — especially dangerous or embarrassing stuff — knows it is like asking a dog to surrender a bone.
And since when did a kid’s phone conversation — on a phone paid for by the parents, on a line paid for by the parents — become a potential criminal offense if violated?
What if the conversation she overheard revealed a Columbine-like plan? What if it were a political assassination? Should mother replace the receiver, wait patiently in the hall, then ask her daughter, “Honey, is there something you want to tell me?”
While someone gets shot?
“It’s ridiculous,” said Dixon, the mother. “Kids have more rights than parents these days.”
To which I say, if they get the rights, give ’em the responsibilities. Make them pay the rent. Make them pay the bills. Make them cook, clean and run every errand.
“Oh, no,” critics say, “that would rob them of their childhood.”
I don’t know. I remember childhood. Part of it was realizing that someone else knew better than me.
And it wasn’t the ACLU.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org”