Short Story: “Intended Consequence”

How do you respond to being threatened?

Intended Consequence
by P. Orin Zack

Mitchell Robieri, one of the more senior faculty members at the financially strapped Riverside High, stared at the unfinished sentence on his screen. He’d blasted through the bulk of his presentation speech for tomorrow’s meeting on the force of the adrenalin raised from the prospect of confronting State Senator Dubinsky with the results of his tie-breaking vote, and now he was stalled.

“And in conclusion, Senator,” he read the paragraph back for the umpteenth time, “I urge you to reconsider the curriculum directives you have mandated for the State Board of Education. Focusing exclusively on the material covered in the federal government’s faulty tests serves neither the students, nor the future of this country. Instead, what we need is…”

He leaned back, crossed his arms, and sighed. Something was wrong, but what? Could there be flaw in his logic… a mistake in his research?

Robieri’s train of thought was broken abruptly by a dull knocking at the door. He glanced at the laptop’s clock: a quarter to one. He wasn’t expecting any late visitors, and since he was the only night owl on the floor, it wasn’t likely to be a neighbor, either. Frowning at the interruption, he hit save, and set the open laptop on the coffee table.

As he approached the door, he slowed and glanced back over his shoulder. He’d gotten into serious trouble from instigating his students into mounting a protest, and there was ample evidence for conspiracy charges on his laptop. Police sometimes made late-night busts. So did the Feds. It wouldn’t be the first time that he’d stuck his neck out to make a political point, but it was the first time his actions could cost him his teaching job. Eight years of the lesser Bush had gotten under his skin, and spawned a healthy crop of paranoia.

The face in the peephole was familiar, but he’d long since given up trying to remember the names of all the students who’d passed through his history class, so he opened the door for a better look.

“Hi, Mr. R,” the pale twenty-something said quietly, her voice thin. “Sorry about the hour, but I need a place to hide. Can I come in?”

Robieri nodded and started to step aside, but froze when she lowered her hand from the doorframe where it had been resting, and he saw the blue and white plastic hospital ID before it disappeared into her jacket sleeve. The name on it brought a brief smile to his face, as he recalled how she’d sparked lively debates in class. He held out his arm for support, and she took it.

“Colleen Tendray,” he said as she drew even with him. “It’s been, what, seven years? What happened? Did you just escape from the hospital?”

“Pretty much, yeah. And I could use a drink.”

“I’ll tell you what, then. I’ll make us both something hot. It looks raw out there.”

She followed him into the kitchen. “Tell me about it. I was out leafleting this morning when all this started.”

Her story was interrupted briefly while he made hot cocoa with the point-of-use heater tap by the sink, dropped in a pair of cherry-filled chocolates, added some mint liqueur, and then topped them both with whipped cream.

“You said you were leafleting,” he said once they got settled in the living room. “Was it political?”

She sniffed at her mug, smiled happily, and took a sip, getting some whipped cream on her light brown nose.  “In a round-about way. Did I ever tell you about my mom’s grandpa Elvin?”

Robieri thought for a moment. That would be on the African-American side of her family. “I think so. Wasn’t he the WPA documentarian?”

She almost spilled her drink attempting to nod a reply. “Yeah, that’s him. I recently discovered that the films he made for Franklin Roosevelt’s depression-era Works Progress Administration were just the tip of the iceberg. Unlike those records of WPA construction projects, which were in the Public Domain because the government bankrolled them, his other films were copyrighted by the studio that had hired him, and they’re all still locked up as a result.”

“Even after all this time? I thought the copyright would have expired by now.”

“And it would have,” she said, “if Congress hadn’t kept extending the length of copyright every time the big content companies whispered sweet campaign contributions in their ears.”

“So…” He paused, stirred the whipped cream into his drink, and took a long, thoughtful sip. “So you were leafleting something about the DMCA?”

“Indirectly. That, and the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which were both passed in 1998, were just the latest attack on the Public Domain.”

“Hold on, hold on… Didn’t Congressman Bono die before those bills were even passed?”

She nodded. “Yeah, he did. But I’m not convinced it was an innocent skiing accident. He might have caught on to what the bill he co-sponsored was really about. In any case, the twenty-year extension the Bono bill added to the nineteen tacked on in ’76 and the nudges made in the sixties weren’t the worst of it. What really threatens the PD is the fact that the DMCA gave blanket protection to all copyrighted content, not just for the part that’s worth anyone’s time to protect, and the fact that those same media companies want to enforce their control by undermining the Internet’s promise of global access.” She paused, and took another sip. “I was leafleting about the intentional destruction of the Public Domain.”

Robieri gazed beyond his former student for a long moment before saying anything. When he did, he crossed his arms and straightened in his seat. “Intentional destruction?”

“Yeah. They want you to think it’s just a side-effect of locking up all the profit-making content in perpetual copyright, along with the much larger body of work that they don’t even offer for sale any more. But I don’t buy that. I think somebody out there has been trying to kill the Public Domain for a hundred years now.”

“But who? Who would benefit from that?”

She flashed a humorless smile. “The same people who did this to me.”

He leaned forward a bit. “What did happen to you?”

“Do you remember the day I got really sick in your class? It was the first period after lunch, and I’d forgotten to bring a sandwich, so I ate in the caf.”

“Peanut oil, wasn’t it?”

Colleen made a face. “Yeah. So what do you think the odds are on me making a sandwich with rancid peanut oil?

He gripped the arms of his chair. “Someone tampered with your lunch? But… who would do a thing like that? And why?”

“I don’t have any personal enemies that I know of, so my guess is that it was someone who didn’t want me circulating those fliers. And if they were serious enough to mess with my own lunch, I really didn’t want to risk a rematch, courtesy of the hospital kitchens. That’s why I skipped out after the graveyard shift came on.”

“Leaving the question I’ve been wondering. Why did you come here?”

“Like I said, I needed a place to hide, and I didn’t want to put my family at risk. But more importantly, I need a collaborator; someone who can make sure the fight doesn’t die with me. It’s not like there’s an organized resistance among the grassroots dedicated to defending the Public Domain. And there’s definitely no organization out there willing to call out the shadow lords nudging Congress and corporations to torch the creative commons and make sure there’s nothing left but a privately owned profit-hunting preserve. And well, I think you’ve got the perspective it takes to really understand the danger we’re in.”

Robieri laughed. “Funny you should mention that.”

“What, that you see the danger?”

“Yeah. Because, as it happens, I was engaging in a bit of windmill-tilting myself when you knocked. But after what you just said, I’m beginning to wonder if maybe I’m looking at the wrong problem.”

“The wrong problem?”

“See, I’ve been trying to attack the whole strategy of teaching to the test – the idea behind Bush’s ‘No Child Left Behind‘ program — on the basis of it being about as useful for teaching as torture is for getting answers. But now I’m not so sure. Maybe I should be looking at the kind of citizen that approach produces, and whether someone stands to gain from that outcome. But that’s really beside the point. Right now, what we ought to be doing is addressing your problem, and making certain that you don’t have to spend your life in hiding.”

Colleen finished her cocoa and set the mug down. “And how, exactly do we do that, Mr. R.?”

“Well, as it happens, I’ve got an appointment to speak with Senator Dubinsky in the morning.”

“But copyright is federal law. What good is bending the ear of a state senator? There’s nothing he can do about it anyway?”

“Not necessarily. Don’t forget that the state university system includes a law school, and Dubinsky is chairman of the Education Committee. That’s why I’m meeting with him, after all. And if I don’t miss my guess here, I think there’s a way we can address both of our problems at the same time.”

Colleen brightened. “Oh?”

*     *     *

“…so here’s my suggestion, Senator,” Robieri said as their half-hour was nearly up. “We start by establishing a state-funded Public Action Center at the University Law School, with the stated goal of involving not only law students, but citizens in general – and that includes high school students — to work together to bring cases that serve the public interest.”

“But it takes years of study to become a lawyer, Mr. Robieri. I hardly think untrained citizens are in any position to –.”

“Begging your pardon, sir, but it doesn’t take a law degree to help with the grunt work. As long as someone with the expertise, and that includes law students, is calling the shots, the kids in my third-period history class are as well-equipped to pitch in as anyone else.”

“Granted, but what would they be doing? What kind of cases would this center take on? The public interest is a pretty vague term.”

“Some of the most important work that any citizen of this country could ask for. Things like protecting the constitutionally guaranteed rights of the citizens to access and make use of creative works that ought to be in the Public Domain.”

Dubinsky shook his head. “I don’t know. Isn’t that the same legal minefield that the recording and movie industries have been plowing?”

“Plowing,” Robieri agreed, “and reaping rewards from threatened legal action as well. The only thing stopping those industry associations from suing students at some of the country’s most prestigious universities is the fact that their law schools – students and teachers alike — have decided to fight back.”

Colleen picked up the thread. “And there’s more, Senator. The need to protect our children from corporations who want to sue them will provide the impetus for teachers in every district in the state to go beyond the test requirements and involve their students in activities that bear directly on their lives and the lives of everyone else in the state. High school students will supply the volunteer labor force needed to support the actions brought on behalf of the community by university law students and by practicing attorneys doing pro bono work, and all of them become active participants, not only in the government and the legal system, but in the larger community as well.”

Senator Dubinsky eyed them both suspiciously. “I’m not entirely sure I can afford the political heat that supporting your proposal will raise. After all, Mr. Robieri, the press are already champing at the bit to tear you to shreds for misusing your access to the students in your care.”

“But that’s exactly why you must do this, Senator. Demonstrating that there was the risk of serious public harm in my failure to speak out like that will deflect that ire, and turn it into a reason for the people of this state to support what will be seen as your proposal.”

“Still. I’ll have to think about it. Doing something like this will not put me in good stead with the corporations that supply a good bit of the money that makes government spending possible.”

Colleen smiled, and looked away for a second, then fixed the senator with a stern look of disapproval. “The very same corporations that those law students and their army of teenaged helpers will very likely be going up against? I think you’d better spend some time thinking about who your constituency really is. Are you here to serve the people who voted you in, or the ones who picked up the tab for your campaign?”

Dubinsky frowned, and nervously glanced at the wall clock. “I’ll think about it.”

Copyright 2008 by P. Orin Zack


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