“Contact”: A Lesson in Semantics for Officers of the Law and Court

Posted on April 17, 2016


I was an English major. In the mid- to late ’90s, I taught literature as a doctoral student—everything from Homer to Robert Louis Stevenson to Virginia Woolf.

I taught privately, too. Each week, I would tutor the grandson of a retired Pima County Superior Court judge, sometimes crossing town to do it. For years.

I got $15 (eventually $20) per visit. It wasn’t about the money.

I liked words, and I liked sensitizing others to them. I used to carry words around in my pockets, and I meant to write for my living.

If the Tucson Police Department and the Tucson City Prosecutor’s Office are correct that writing ABOUT someone is “contact,” then the Weekly World News is distinguished for contacting Bigfoot; Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, AND their shaved ape baby; aliens; a redneck vampire; and both Satan and Jesus.

As a teacher and student of words, then, it’s not without irony that today I face nearly a year and a half in jail because of them. Ostensibly I stand exposed to this punishment because of words I’ve written here. Really it’s because a single word, whose meaning everybody knows, has taken on such a pyrotechnic glare that custodians of the law have become blind to its significance.

That word is contact, which decades of scare propaganda have turned into a loaded weapon. People are criminalized today for purportedly making “unwanted contact” or “unsolicited contact.”

I was arrested in January by a Tucson detective I’ll call Rottweiler (which is a word the detective used to clarify how his name is spelled and pronounced, and isn’t used by me to insult him: Rottweilers are dogs dear to my heart). Det. Rottweiler told me that he believed I had “caused a contact” with some women who’ve stalked me for a decade and falsely accused me of stalking them to reverse roles. They’ve accused me of sexually harassing and posing a violent “danger” to them, too. (One of them, whom I’ve met exactly three times in my life, reported to Det. Rottweiler in January that she now carries a gun to protect herself from me—and she probably does; she takes her method acting seriously. When you’ve deceived as many people as these women have, including police officers and judges, you have to up your game to save face.) The detective said I had “contacted” the women by using their names as I’ve just used “his” in this paragraph. By this reasoning, I have just contacted him.

Have I, though? No, plainly not. When the detective called me in January, we were “in contact.” When I later called him to appoint a time to meet for an interview, that, too, was a “contact.”

The distinction is stark. Contact is one-to-one. I contact someone by calling him, meeting him, emailing, texting, etc.

In its ruling in favor of entrepreneur Matthew Chan last spring, who was accused of “stalking” on the same basis I’m being prosecuted for criminal “harassment,” the Georgia Supreme Court put it like this:

“To ‘contact’ is readily understood by people of ordinary intelligence as meaning ‘to get in touch with; communicate with.’” […] Although one may “contact” another…by communicating with the other person through any medium, it nevertheless is essential that the communication be directed specifically to that other person, as opposed to a communication that is only directed generally to the public.

To put it another way, these do not represent contact: carving a person’s name in a tree trunk in the park, skywriting it, or having it tattooed on your biceps. Like using a person’s name in a one-to-many “blog” (which does not communicate anything to any particular person), all of these acts are publications of a person’s name; none is contact.

If an anchor on CNN or Fox News or NPR or the BBC today reports something that the president of Egypt said or did yesterday, that does not mean the news presenter will necessarily have “contacted” the president of Egypt.

(While this should be obvious to anyone, I’ve been writing motions to the court for the past two months, and salient in the documents are boldfaced prepositions like ABOUT, as opposed to TO or WITH. You wouldn’t think communicating the distinction to learned adults would require such antics, but it does.)

It’s a telling reflection on the priorities of stewards of the law today that citizens face imprisonment because of a misattribution of meaning to a word we all learned as little kids.

Copyright © 2016 RestrainingOrderAbuse.com

*It will presage real progress toward reform when we as a people start to re-familiarize ourselves with the meanings of these words: decency, fairness, equality, and justice.