Secret Service Calls on Owner of "King George" SignIt was August 26, and Derek Kjar, 19, was in the backyard of his home in Salt Lake City stringing up plants in his garden.
He got a voice mail message on his cell phone, so he decided to check it.
"Derek, this is Agent Kim from the U.S. Secret Service, and I need to speak to you as soon as possible. Please call me." Kim left his number, Kjar says.
"At first, I thought it was a joke," Kjar says. "My friend Marisa said, in jest, that they were trying to flag all the gay people in America." Kjar is gay.
He called his mother, and she told him to call the man back in the morning.
That's what he did.
"Agent Kim answered," Kjar recalls. "He asked me where I was. I said I was at work. He said he'd be right there. I asked what it was about. And he said he couldn't disclose that over the phone."
Kjar works at his parents' dry cleaners. He waited there until a silver Grand Am pulled up to the shop, and two agents came out: Agent Kim and another man, Kjar says.
"Before we knew it, my stepdad was gone out back talking to the agents," Kjar says. "When my stepdad came back, they said they wanted to talk to me alone."
Kjar followed them out back.
"When I went out there, they said they had a call from my neighbor about a sticker on my car," he says. "And right then, I knew exactly what they were talking about: It was a graphic I had printed off a website on my computer, and I just taped it on to my car with scotch tape. It said: KING GEORGE-Off With His Head."
The agents asked Kjar where the sticker was, so he took them out to his car. "I opened up the door and got it off the seat and handed it to them," he says. "They asked why it wasn't on the window anymore, and I said the sun had melted it off."
Then they got down to brass tacks.
"They started addressing me about how it could be a threat," he says. "They said it was 'borderline terrorism.' "
"Isn't that sort of bullshit? Doesn't that take my freedom of speech away?"
No, the agents said, repeating the "borderline terrorism" charge, Kjar says.
The agents then went inside with Kjar, and they interrogated him alone for another forty minutes, he says.
"They asked me if I was serious about making a threat to the President," he says. "And I said no, the only thing I was hoping to do was get a few people a little ticked off at me or maybe get another vote for Kerry."
The questions continued.
"They asked if I had ever made a threat to the President, or ever written to the President or contacted him in any way or ever met him," he says.
"I said no, I had better things to do with my time.
"Then they asked me if I had ever studied assassination or terrorism, or the former assassination of other government officials, or ever read books in school about it, or done any school projects on it.
"I told them no, I hadn't.
"They asked if I had been in the military or any type of a militia groups.
"I was kind of baffled about that. 'No, no, no, not even close, way off.' "
To Kjar's relief, his mother finally arrived.
"When my mother walked into the room, both agents stood up and puffed their chest out and said you can't be in here. And my mother said, 'I don't give a shit. He's my son.'
So she just sat right next to me and waited with me."
Then they probed his political affiliations.
"They asked me, 'Are you a part of an equal rights organization or blah or blah or any group opposed to the President?"
And then they got personal, he says.
"They started asking me about my relationship with my roommates," he says. "And whether I went out to clubs. They asked whether I smoke, or drank, or took drugs. Then they started asking about my physical characteristics: If blond was my natural hair color, if I wore contacts, and if had any identifying marks, like tattoos, moles, and scars, and where they were or what they were from, and whether I had ever had any plastic surgery."
When they were done with the questioning, the agents had an assignment for Kjar.
"They asked me to write a statement about the sticker, why I got the sticker, where, how, and why I put it up," he says.
He complied. "It was about a page and a half," he says. "They made me sign it. Basically, I said I found it on the Internet, I thought it was funny, and it was a little edgier than most that I'd seen, so I printed it up and put it in my car hoping to get a few laughs."
Before they left, they took three photographs of Kjar, he says, and they warned him: "Do not post or print or hand out the sticker again."
Kjar feels that his rights were violated. "I've almost lost my freedom of speech," he says. "I make one statement, and I get shot down, while everyone is out there with their bumper stickers and signs."
Kjar suspects that his neighbors with Bush stickers all over their car turned him in. "They won't even speak to us," he says. "Since the incident, the police have been over at my neighbors' house several times. For a while, I just felt trapped. I didn't want to leave my house because I thought my neighbors would hassle me. Or if we had a party at my house, the neighbors might report us."
The Secret Service office in Salt Lake City would not comment on the story, except to say that Lon Garner of the Denver office would be answering any questions.
"The inference of a veiled threat is what we look at," Special Agent Garner says. "That's exactly what that was. By law, we investigate all those types of threats. We present those to the U.S. attorney. A veiled threat will always be investigated by the Secret Service. That's what we do. Always."
Garner was incredulous at the suggestion of an infringement on civil liberties.
"How could his freedom of speech be violated would be my question," he says.
Dani Eyer, executive director of the ACLU, offers an explanation. "It would take an extreme imagination on the part of the Secret Service to consider this sign as an imminent threat," Eyer says. "Anybody with any familiarity with the Declaration of Independence or the Revolutionary War would know that 'Off With His Head' was political hyperbole."
Eyer says the Secret Service has an obligation to investigate threats, but also an obligation to take context into consideration and to assess intent. Eyer adds that it was "inappropriate for the Secret Service to confiscate" Kjar's sign.
While he was intimidated at first, Kjar says he isn't anymore.
"I've gotten a lot of support from people who share my opinions or even support Bush but believe that it was uncool that they went after me."
He says he may return to posting signs.
"I've been kind of considering making some T-shirts or actual bumper stickers," he says. "What can they do to me except keep taking my sticker away? I'm not a threat."
2004 The Progressive