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Jewish World Review Dec. 13, 2004 / 30 Kislev, 5765

Mitch Albom

Mitch Albom
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Consumer Reports

Court, ACLU call a wrong number in phone case | 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 City, but in Friday Harbor (population 2,000) it was big news, the way things like this 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 might know him to be alert for any evidence - including 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 in some stick bushes."

How do we know this? Carmen Dixon did what mothers have been doing since the invention of the telephone: She listened in on her daughter's conversation.

Thanks partly to what she heard, Christensen was convicted of second-degree robbery.

But now a new trial has been ordered.

He might even have his own lawsuit.

The Washington state Supreme Court ruled last week that the mother violated the kid's privacy by eavesdropping on her daughter's conversation.

Let's face it. We were all born too late.

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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 girl would have been warned about having a 17-year-old punk 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 knocked her over and 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 in the position of 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 pretty much every father I knew growing up - said: "If you're living under my roof, you're living by my rules."

Remember, this was a 14-year-old we're talking about, not some live-at-home college graduate. Anyone who has ever asked a 14-year-old to voluntarily share all information with Mom and Dad - especially stuff that is naughty, dangerous or embarrassing - 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 - suddenly 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 the boy goes and shoots someone?

"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.

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Comment on JWR contributor Mitch Albom's column by clicking here. You may purchase his latest book, "The Five People You Meet in Heaven", by clicking HERE. (Sales help fund JWR.)



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