• United States



World View: Security, Taser Guns and the Obnoxious Guest

Nov 06, 20074 mins
Build AutomationCSO and CISO

By Paul Raines

A security incident occurred a few weeks ago at the University of Florida during a visit by former presidential candidate and U.S. Senator John Kerry. During a question-and-answer period, a member of the audience, Andrew Meyer, was asking Kerry a question when the campus police intervened, tackled the student, administered a taser gun electronic shock, and hand-cuffed and arrested him. The protester spent a night in jail before being charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

The incident achieved minor public notoriety via the Internet because a member of the audience captured the episode on video and posted it to YouTube (view here). Political blogs picked up on the story, and it was further amplified when television talk show host Bill O’Reilly called the protester a wimp for begging not to be tasered. O’Reilly then began hawking bumper stickers on his show that quoted Meyer’s pleas for mercy–“Don’t taze me, bro!” (View here.)

I viewed the video several times because I was so shocked by the incident. It appeared that Meyer–despite being long-winded and somewhat preachy–was simply exercising his right to free speech.

As the story unfolded, the campus police explained that they intervened for two reasons. First, they had been warned ahead of time that Meyer was a political activist; therefore, they had a heightened awareness of any of his actions. Second, although there was no way of knowing it by watching the video, the campus police said afterward that Meyer had been asked to sit down because he was not getting to the point. Not exactly a “taserable offense” in my book–especially because you can also hear Kerry tell the police that he would be happy to answer the question. In short, Meyer’s primary offense seemed to be, at first, that he was a bit obnoxious and long-winded, and then, that he demanded loudly to know why he was being arrested. To the campus police, this simple exercise of free speech constituted disruptive behaviour, resisting arrest and hence, the need for a taser shock. Nice try, but I think this flimsy justification sounds better in the original 1930s German.

Whether or not you agree with me that the police over-reacted, the incident raises interesting questions about when and how police or security personnel should intervene at public events. Ironically, the campus police at the University of Florida were well prepared for Kerry’s speech, in that they were able to identify an audience member with a history of political activism. They were right, therefore, to have an heightened awareness of his actions. Unfortunately, it seems to me that they let a minor annoyance escalate into a truly disruptive situation because they were expecting much worse things from the person. Meyer’s loud protestations and cries for help probably heightened their anxiety. The whole situation–and the resulting 2 million views of the video on YouTube–probably could have been avoided simply by allowing Kerry to answer the man’s questions.

Ah yes, you may say, but if the police had not intervened, then what might have happened could have been much worse. My suspicion is that the worst thing that would have happened would have been another minute of Meyer’s monotonous monologue, or that Kerry would have indulged him by engaging in a dialogue about his conspiracy theories.

So is the moral of the story that we in security are damned if we do and damned if we don’t? Not exactly, although in the security profession we will always be subject to second guessing. With a presidential election season heating up, it is likely that these types of incidents will occur with regular frequency–and someone witnessing an incident is bound to have a video camera.

If there is anything to be learned it is that for public political events, security needs to be pro-active and aware of potential problems–but not so much so that they see what they expect to see, and not what is actually happening. Citizens have the right to freedom of speech even if they are obnoxious. And in my mind, there is something even more sacred to a Democracy than security, and that is the Constitution.

World View columnist Paul Raines is CISO for a non-profit organization based in The Hague, Netherlands. Send feedback to Managing Editor Sarah Scalet at