U.S. Federal Government Silences Typo Spotters; Forces Them To Stop Encouraging Others

In a nation that prides itself on its freedom of expression comes this ridiculous story—Typo Vigilantes Answer To The Letter Of The Law—featured in The Arizona Republic. The story starts our like this:

“Two self-anointed grammar vigilantes who toured the nation removing typos from public signs have been banned from national parks after vandalizing a historic marker at the Grand Canyon…In addition to being banned from national parks for a year, the defendants, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to vandalize government property, are banned from modifying any public signs. They also must pay $3,035 to repair the Grand Canyon sign.

That’s right. You read that correctly, the U.S. Federal government prosecuted the most vicious syndicate of criminals our country has ever seen, the members of the Typo Eradication Advancement League. Their crime? Correcting a “historic” sign at the Desert View Watchtower, part of Grand Canyon National Park. See the criminal complaint (PDF).

image It all started harmlessly enough. TEAL members Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson “discovered a hand-rendered fiberboard sign with yellow lettering with a black background,” Deck wrote in the TEAL blog—which has been shut down as part of the plea agreement—and “used a marker to cover an erroneous apostrophe, put the apostrophe in its proper place with white-out and added a comma.”

“I know today was supposed to be my day off from typo-hunting, but if I may be permitted to quote that most revered of android law enforcers, Inspector Gadget, ‘Always on duty!’ I can’t shut it off,” he wrote on the TEAL blog, according to prosecutors, adding: “Will we never be free from the shackles of apostrophic misunderstanding, even in a place surrounded by natural beauty?”

image According to an Associated Press article on the plea agreement, TEAL was forced to take down their popular website and blog, in exchange for probation. The alternative was jail time, a less-than-attractive option. Additionally, AP reported, “The misspelled word ‘emense’ was not fixed, Deck wrote, because he “was reluctant to disfigure the sign any further. … Still, I think I shall be haunted by that perversity, emense, in my train-whistle-blighted dreams tonight,” Deck wrote.

Where Are The Journalists When You Need Them?

The article is pathetic and wouldn’t earn a college journalism student a passing grade. It reads more like a press release for government prosecutors, than a news article, lacking in any details about the case from the defendants side of the story. A proper article would have included the cost of prosecuting the offenders (the story is much more interesting if you know the ROI of the effort—the amount of money the government spent prosecuting these guys to collect a couple of thousand dollars in fines), what triggered the investigation, and why the defendants lawyer failed to win the case. In fact, the story should have included quotes from the attorney, from family and friends of the defendants, and opinions from others. Even the most basic of journalistic principles—showing both sides of the story—was missing from the articles written by the mainstream media. While the defendants are, pursuant to the plea agreement, barred from discussing this issue with anyone until August 11, 2009, there are certainly others, most notably the two other TEAL members—Josh Roberts and Jane Connolly—that could have added balance to the story.

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While this corrective action was perhaps not the brightest thing these 28-year-old typo-hunters did on their trek across America to “stamp out as many typos as they could find,” I’m not sure it was worthy of criminal prosecution. Come on, what a waste of taxpayer funds! I can understand making someone pay for damaging an item (the sign) that does not belong to them, even if for the best of reasons. But making them take their website down (please, those photos are already all over the web) and preventing them from encouraging others to fix typographic errors, that’s just prosecutorial grandstanding. Besides, anyone who knows anything about how the internet works knows you can search a variety of online archives and find the web pages the government hoped to protect us from with just a few keystrokes.

The TEAL website is now out-of-commission and a message posted in place of the content that was published there prior to the plea agreement says: “Statement on the signage of our National Parks and public lands to come”. Another plea agreement condition, I’m certain.

It’s obvious to me that these typo-hating do-gooders needed a much better attorney than the lame-ass one who represented them. I’d wager that if the guys would have been represented by one of the many famous television attorneys that make their living taking on the government in high profile cases like those showcased on Lou Dobbs or Anderson Cooper 360, this case would have ended up with much different results. However, stranger things have happened when government prosecutors are determined to make an example of well-meaning citizens.

image Ironically, this action by the federal government is probably one of the best things that could ever happen to Deck and company. The controversy stirs interest from talk shows, publishers and conference organizers. The TEAL team will now be more in-demand than they already were. This is the Madonna school of marketing. Remember the book Sex? It stirred so much controversy that some library patrons were removing (stealing) the book from the library and then burning it. While this action removed the book from the library shelves for a short time, it also increased sales of the books (and revenue to Madonna and her publisher—not to mention lots of free publicity) because when librarians noticed the books were missing, they reordered replacement copies. The book burners also helped Sex earn the 19th spot on the American Library Association 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books list. The same type of hype can be generated by the government action against TEAL. I’d expect these guys to get a great coffee table book deal, interviews on dozens of television shows and news programs, and really high internet traffic when they again flip the switch on their now banned website.

Jeff Deck was supposed to be the keynote speaker at our Documentation and Training East 2008 conference. Because the conditions of the plea agreement prevent him from detailing his adventures until next year, we’ve invited Deck to tell his story at next year’s event. Can you imagine the advertisement? Previously barred by the U.S. Federal Government from telling you his story at last year’s event….” It’s a marketing gold mine. And a bargain at $3035 plus attorney fees. The possibilities are endless. And, they’ve got just under a year to prepare for the onslaught of media attention they can get if they orchestrate things correctly. I hope they have a better agent than they did attorney.

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5 Responses to “U.S. Federal Government Silences Typo Spotters; Forces Them To Stop Encouraging Others”

  1. Michael Hughes August 25, 2008 at 6:14 am #

    One detail that was in the article that seems important is:

    “On March 28, while at Desert View Watchtower on the South Rim, they used a white-out product and a permanent marker to deface a sign painted more than 60 years ago by artist Mary Colter. The sign, a National Historic Landmark, was considered unique and irreplaceable, according to Sandy Raynor, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Phoenix.”

    These individuals defaced a historic,hand-written document that revealed the humanity of the author (as in “to err is…”) Was their smug, self-righteous sense of self-worth at knowing the apostrophe rule better than the artist whose work they defaced that important? My only regret in this story is that they didn’t get jail time.

    Oh, and in their obviously abundant spare time, the TEAL folks should have looked up the word typo; they would have realized that they had no standing in the sign in question.

  2. ScottAbel August 25, 2008 at 6:17 pm #

    Interesting vantage point, Michael. I still stand by my opinion that the prosecution was grandstanding (after all, it’s an election year).

    I also think the news coverage was lame and lazy. They really didn’t make any effort to find the interesting angles nor did they bother to do basic reporting.

    I’m all for the guys (TEAL) paying for the damage—I don’t want anyone to deface any historic jewels (be they signs, artworks, or buildings) but I also don’t want our government wasting money selectively enforcing laws. There are so many laws not being enforced in Arizona—and the nation as a whole—that we could spend time and money enforcing.

    As far as abundant free time..I think you are missing the point. They were working their way across America helping folks who maintain signs avoid some of the dumb mistakes people make—like, the Christian Church sign that read: “Jesus is our shepard” (author of surrealistic allegorical plays; a mutant villain in the Marvel Comics Universe; astronaut who made the first United States’ suborbital rocket-powered flight in 1961) instead of “Jesus is our shepherd” (a clergyman who watches over a group of people).

    There are hundreds of great stories from the TEAL trek across the country that do have value. They did not make fun of the people who made the errors; instead, they worked to educate and help them make the changes. Some accepted their help and made corrections to their signs. Others did not.

    These young folks may have used some bad judgment when it came to the historical sign they damaged, but their overall effort was a positive one, loaded with useful, educational stories. I, personally, can’t wait until they are able to share them with us all.

  3. Michael Hughes August 26, 2008 at 3:14 pm #

    I appreciate your point of view as well, but the episode about the church sign reminded me of a poem by the Sufi poet Rumi. Moses criticizes a simple shepherd for the coarseness of his prayer and God answers:

    “On each man I his nature did bestow,

    To everybody an expression I impart,

    Which seems great praise to him, but blame to you;

    He thinks it honey, you as poison deem;

    It light to him must be, and fire to you;

    But roses bright to him, and thorns to you,

    What he deems good, as wicked you condemn;

    What he applauds, you often disapprove;

    We from pure and all impure things are free,

    As well as from anxiety and speed.

    I man have not produced for gain of mine,

    But blessings to bestow on those who worship me.”

    Again, I find an unseemly arrogance in the Teal group. It smacks of technical communicators at our worse, using our knowledge, like Moses in the Sufi poem, to get in the way of communication.

  4. Alan Jackson August 27, 2008 at 5:52 am #

    Pity they didn’t get ‘banged up’.

    We could have championed their cause with a Free the Typo two…. or Three the Typo 2….or Free the Typo too. Something that matches the stupidity from both sides in this case.

  5. Leigh White October 3, 2008 at 10:15 am #

    The most frustrating point about this case to me is the amount of money spent finding and prosecuting these guys. As a great admirer and user of our national parks, I would much rather have seen that money go into maintenance of the many park facilities in need of repair. I would also rather have seen these guys sentenced to serve in the park, repairing, cleaning–whatever. After all, they obviously have a lot of spare time on their hands. I’m just thankful they didn’t stop off at the Arch in St. Louis, where the Museum of Western Expansion features huge panels of text taken from Lewis’s and Clark’s diaries, complete with their atrocious spelling and grammar errors. I’m not even sure you can buy Wite-Out by the gallon, and they would have needed it there. Wouldn’t it be ironic if they used that particular brand of correction fluid, poorly-spelled as its name is?