The following story could be a warm, gentle work of American English fiction. Cliches a plenty, and colourful characters, I see pulizter prize: however this is all true: a lesson in free speech in the blogosphere:
There’s a warm, gentle breeze blowing up Franklin Street, rustling the trees, random leaves, and the ringlets in Erin Carter’s hair.
Sitting cross-legged on a wooden bench, twisting a lock of that cinnamon-brown hair around her finger, the 17-year-old Chapel Hill High School student reminisces about the day she found herself in the middle of a weird convergence of coincidence and circumstance that morphed into controversy.
“We were watching a drunk-driving demonstration in the football stadium because prom was next week, and my math teacher told me to go to the office,” she said. “So I got a ride with the security guard in the golf cart to the office. I get there, and these two guys in FBI shirts were sitting there, and I say to myself, ‘Someone is in big trouble.’ ”
When one of the men stood up and handed her a business card with “FBI Cyber Crime Task Force” on it, she turned to the security guard and said, “I guess I am in big trouble.”
There was a problem with the school’s computer system, and school officials suspected hacking. Carter had heard rumours about the incident and had written a blurb in her Web log, or blog, her online journal. “Somebody hacked into citrix at school. I think it’s [expletive] hilarious. They took down half the network!” she wrote.
Things went from funny to frightening when she found herself confronted with her own blog words on a printout the officers used to question her, making her feel like a suspect.
“It was pretty scary. They had my journal printed out, and I thought they had this 50-page file on me and that it was going to follow me for the rest of my life.”
But the computer problem was not what it appeared to be, and neither were the investigators.
The problem with the computer system was likely just a glitch. And the two men who questioned Carter weren’t FBI agents at all, but Chapel Hill police officers brandishing a phoney business card, misleading and intimidating her.
One of the officers, John W. Moore, resigned while his termination papers were being drawn up. The other, Bryan Walker, was suspended for 10 days without pay. Prior to the incident, both officers had clean work records, according to police officials.
And Carter, who gained notoriety for bringing the incident to light, is left with feelings about as tangled as that hair around her finger.
“I’ve always been impressed with the Chapel Hill Police Department. I still feel really bad hurting this guy’s career. I do feel responsible. I was the one who raised the commotion about it,” she said. “I’m not sorry I did it, but I feel responsible.”
A young activist
Carter says she spoke up — after a reporter overheard her telling her story to friends in a bookstore-cafe — only to make people aware that students’ rights were being violated in schools.
A local activist who recently travelled to Nicaragua with a teenage delegation to tour impoverished towns and clothing factories, Carter has always taken a stand to protect rights — other people’s and her own. “Even as a small child, one of her pet peeves was inequality,” said her mom, Melissa. “If something struck her as unfair, she would be upset. So the fact that she would become an activist is not a surprise to us.
“When she was little, she got a poster from a book fair with a dalmatian with all different colour spots that said dare to be different. And that’s what she always does.”
Carter, with her slightly freckled, cherubic face, voluminous hair and black-rimmed glasses, looks like she could be an Ozzy Osbourne offspring. Christmas before last she had a red dye job that made her a dead ringer for Kelly Osbourne. But unlike those bratty reality darlings, Carter doesn’t spend her time dropping names like Prada, Gucci and Fendi.
Her tan-and-white-striped polo shirt, black-and-white-checked skirt, and green-and-yellow-sequined flip flops are thrift store chic — “This whole outfit cost me five dollars” — and her buzzwords are World Trade Organization, NAFTA, and the International Monetary Fund.
“It is really frustrating, the environmental laws and the labour laws, the U.S. policies that hurt other countries. I think most Americans don’t know what’s going on in other countries,” she said. “That’s something I’d like to try and change.”
Carter says she embraced the unexpected media attention because she saw a chance to highlight her causes. Poverty. Inhumane working conditions in poor countries. Problems with U.S. foreign policy. That’s what she says she cares about, not being on the evening news.
But the reaction to her run-in with police and the subsequent media blitz was mixed. People sounded off in the street, in letters to editors, and on blogs from France to Ethiopia to Australia.
“Just do a Google search for Erin Carter and FBI,” she says, referring to a popular Internet search engine. “People had a lot of stuff to say.”
Some praise her: “Young adults like Carter … make me think there may be hope for an intelligent, well-informed populace after all,” reads one blog.
Others were suspicious and dismissive: “It offends me that this girl seems to think her privacy was invaded by the fact that someone read what she posted on a public Web site …,” reads another.
Carter says she put her blog — which has since been shut down — online because it was the last place she thought her computer-unsavvy parents would look. As for the feedback, she welcomes it, the good and the bad.
“I think free speech is really, really important, and I am happy to see people having opinions rather than not caring at all,” she says.
Getting people to care is her mission. That’s the key to affecting change, she says. But sometimes the problems seem so great, the bureaucracy so large, her task too daunting.
“It’s so hard to imagine yourself changing all of it. I wonder, ‘What can I do?’ ” she says as she rests her cheek on her palm.
Evon Barnes, her English teacher, thinks Carter can do a lot. Carter took Barnes’ honours American literature class, where she did a project on the injustices of the legal system to make students aware of their rights.
“She is a very unique, compassionate and giving spirit. I think she will grow into one of those individuals that will work for the betterment of all human beings,” Barnes said. “Erin is going to be on the news one day, making a speech in front of the House, working towards change.”
Kristina Casto, co-manager of Internationalist Books, a lefty bookstore in Chapel Hill where Carter helped organize a Jesse Helms retirement party, says Carter is educated and enthusiastic about her pet issues.
“She’s just very low key, but a very smart and passionate person and a lot of fun to have around,” Casto said. “It’s phenomenal that, at her age, how political she is and how well-informed she is about the issues of the day.”
When she isn’t out trying to save the world, she is playing bass guitar and trumpet in the school bands. She also makes her own clothes and customizes others that she buys at thrift shops. “It’s not as useful to the global justice movement, but still pretty fun,” she says.
Recrossing her legs as she runs her hand over the slight burn she got from the Nicaraguan sun, she answers her own question from before. Can she really make a difference?
“I hope so, I really do. Because if there isn’t [a chance that she can], it’ll feel like my life has no meaning,” she says. “I guess the best we can hope for is that we can pass the information around and get enough people as outraged as I am, and maybe I can change something.”