Thursday, December 6, 2007

Bernie Ward's Problems

Those of you who have lived in San Francisco know who Bernie Ward is. He's a very, very liberal (or progressive, depending on your mood) radio talk show host out there. I've never been able to take him seriously--he combines the worst errors of progressivism with the worst of talk show host traits into a very unappealing package.

So you might think that I am crowing about Ward's federal child pornography indictment, discussed in this December 6, 2007 San Francisco Chronicle article. No, I am not. Yes, he's a former Catholic priest, so I don't find the charges implausible. He is a progressive--so I don't find the charges implausible. But the claim that his attorney makes:

Ward's attorney said today that the charges are based on incidents that occurred more than four years ago and were part of research for a book.
"As everybody knows, Bernie, for over 20 years, has been a progressive, opposed to insensitive authority - he has been a champion of charities, nonprofits for the homeless," said Doron Weinberg, who appeared in federal court today as Ward's lawyer.
"More than three years ago, Bernie was doing research for a book he was doing on hypocrisy in America," Weinberg said.
As part of the research, Ward downloaded "a few images" of child pornography, and, Weinberg said, "it came to the attention of the government in late 2004."
"They investigated and they never found any involvement in child pornography other than this period that he accessed these images," Weinberg said. "The government knows that Bernie was doing this for an investigation he was doing for a book. But the government believes he violated the letter of the law and they have gone ahead and prosecuted him."
This is now known as the Peter Townshend defense, and as with Townshend, I am prepared, in the absence of other evidence, to give Ward the benefit of the doubt. The fact is that there are some subjects that are hard to research without actually seeing at least some examples of the subject. You can write a book or a paper about neo-Nazi hate literature without reading it--but it isn't going to be a terribly impressive piece of scholarship. You can write a book or a paper about child pornography without ever seeing any of it--but it is unlikely to be a very persuasive piece of research.

This does present a real problem: how do you distinguish legitimate research from the purpose for which the child pornography statutes exist? It would be very easy for someone whose interest in child pornography was prurient, not scholarly, to use that as an excuse.

Now, if the federal prosecutor actually believed what Ward's attorney says, why are they prosecuting him? Prosecutors have some discretion on whether to file a criminal charge--and if they have known about this since 2004, why are they only filing charges now? Either some additional information has come to their attention that raises questions about Ward's claim, or the federal prosecutor is showing a distinct lack of discretion.

For now, I'm prepared to give Bernie Ward the benefit of the doubt, until some clear evidence shows up that he was not engaged in research on the subject.

UPDATE: This December 6, 2007 KTVU channel 2 report says something a lot more damaging:
San Francisco radio talk show host Bernie Ward has been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of using the Internet to send and receive child pornography, his lawyer said.

The indictment is under seal, but the charges were confirmed by Ward's lawyer, Doron Weinberg, and by his employer, KGO radio.

Weinberg said Ward, 56, pleaded not guilty to the indictment before a federal magistrate in San Francisco Thursday.

He said Ward is due to reappear in court in late January before U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker for a status conference and scheduling of a trial date.

Weinberg said the case stems from an "error of judgment" Ward made when he spent a few days in 2004 looking at pornography images and exchanging images with other adults when doing research for a book on hypocrisy.
Exchanging images? Okay, that pretty well blows out Ward's claim of researching the topic.

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