Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dan the Streakin' Man awaits school's punishment for puerile football game prank

Daniel Thew, a sophomore at the University of Montana, now known as "Dan the Streakin' Man," became a minor Montana celebrity for doing a stupid thing at U of M's football game against Cal Poly last Saturday: he got very drunk and obliged the chants of his fellow students by streaking on the field (the student body had somehow been tipped off that Dan was inclined to strip down to his birthday suit).

Dan ran onto the field and proceeded to pose, flaunt, dance, shake his junk, and prance around to the stunned approval of the student section -- approval marked by cheers and high-pitched shrieks of glee emitted by young women who, apparently, considered themselves fortunate (as in, "do you believe this?" as opposed to "what a nice dick he has!") to witness the spectacle.

Nobody tackled Dan, and the naked cause célèbre ended peacefully when Dan was arrested without any "don't tase me, bro" moments. Dan is now a quasi- campus hero. He gets to do radio interviews and claims he's been complimented on his genitalia.

Some older spectators didn't appreciate seeing so much of Dan.  One woman wished he had been tackled. And when police handcuffed him, an angry father pproached Dan and announced, "I'm pressing charges against this [m-f-er]."  The angry man revealed that his child had been "scarred for life" because the kid had witnessed something no child has ever witnessed on the Internet, on television, or anywhere else: a flaccid naked man from a distance.  Please understand, the father's inappropriate anger and foul language are, themselves, insufficient to "scar" the poor child for life, but a fleeting glimpse at a college boy's tallywacker hundreds of feet away will definitely do just that.

We learned about this story when we saw that an early report last weekend that said the university was thinking of either suspending or expelling Dan for his puerile prank. See here. Our initial reaction was, that's about par for the course in these zero tolerance times, where even a slight male sexual infraction is happily treated with an almost sadistic, punitive overkill that is wholly out of whack with whatever harm the offense might have caused.

It turns out that might have been a false alarm. The university is still considering Dan's punishment, and at U of M, "[s]tudents are typically suspended or expelled . . . only in cases involving rape, sexual assault and violent physical assault, depending on the severity of the case, said Dean of Students Charles Couture, who oversees violations of the student conduct code."  See here.

But make no mistake, people who do what Dan did are fortunate if they can stay in school, stay out of jail, and stay off a sex offenders registry.

A sex offenders registry? For streaking

Yep.  Thirty-two states register streakers. And that's just one indication of what is happening.  We won't even talk about the guys caught urinating in an alley or 17-year-old guys having sex with their slightly younger girlfriends.  "Because so many offences require registration, the number of registered sex offenders in America has exploded. As of December [2008], there were 674,000 of them, according to the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. If they were all crammed into a single state, it would be more populous than Wyoming, Vermont or North Dakota." Id.

We've reached the point where, if a kid streaks at a high school football game, loopy school tradition be damned, he might just land himself on a sex offenders registry.  The ACLU thinks registering streakers is inappropriate, because it is. Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett urges the exercise of something few lawmakers have when it comes to these issues: perspective. "If everyone who does something goofy gets identified as a sex offender," Garnett said, "it doesn't mean anything."  Yet, up until the law was changed last year, streakers in Boulder were placed in line to be included on a sex offenders registry.

A former Maine lawmaker explained that "what began as 39 categories of sex offenses under the Adam Walsh Act has blossomed to 189, including urinating in public, streaking and online sex chat, perhaps unpleasant activities but hardly worthy of a scarlet letter for the rest of one's life or even for 10 years."

When a bill was introduced in Oregon requiring all "sex" offenders to register, Tim King summed up the problem: "[W]hy would the state suddenly seek to broaden the list by including all sex offenders, rather than those who are predatory? I don't personally care if my neighbor got drunk and went streaking during a college party, do you?"

Sharon Kennedy Wynne was brutally blunt, but honest, about it: "Maybe we need a law against laws named for dead kids. There are studies that have questioned the usefulness of 'Megan's Law' which requires anyone charged with any kind of sex crime (from streaking to having sex with their underage girlfriend) to register on a sex registry."

Like so many of the subjects we feature here, I, personally, do not approve of Dan's behavior. It was childish and lewd. He's in need of some help more for drinking and poor judgment than for exposing his genitals.

Expelling Dan, or putting his name on a sex offenders registry, are scarcely appropriate reactions to this incident. There should not be a cookie cutter punishment for every instance of misconduct involving an exposed penis. Context is everything. If Dan had walked uninvited into a woman's dorm room late one night, closed and locked the door, and then proceeded to display his manly wares in the same way he had done on the football field, that would be regarded as a predatory affront. The same women who were shrieking with glee in the football stadium likely would be shrieking with fear at such a visit.

In too many ways, in our zeal to protect women and children from evil men, we've tossed common sense out of the window. I've spoken with many judges and lawyers who bemoan strict mandatory sentencing guidelines for that very reason. When we eliminate judges' discretion in sentencing, we keep them from exercising justice based on the particular circumstances of the case before them.  It is true that in the old days, some judges abused their discretion (it was almost only when judges were too "lenient" that we heard about it, sentences that were too harsh rarely made the news). Zero tolerance policies allow for no gray areas in a world that is primarily gray areas.  In short, there are exposed penises, and there are exposed penises, and getting equally upset about every one of them is not appropriate.

The students who were cheering Dan's antics on the field were not in awe of his package (sorry, Dan, that includes the women). They were delighted in the same way fans of the Three Stooges are delighted to see their heroes turn a posh society party into a shambles.  We would never do it ourselves, and we don't condone it, but there's a little part of us that admires guys who thumb their noses -- and sometimes other appendages -- at society's rules.

Just don't try it in her dorm room.