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Free Martha! Free Bobby!

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The U.S. government has moved closer to nabbing two prized catches. Martha Stewart has been sentenced to five months in prison, five months under house arrest, and a $30,000 fine for lying about noncriminal activity. She will remain free while appealing her convictions. Former world chess champion Bobby Fischer may be turned over to U.S. authorities by the Japanese government for his 1992 defiance of a ban on travel to Yugoslavia, site of his rematch with Russian chess great Boris Spassky. Fischer faces 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine.

Neither Stewart nor Fischer, however unattractive their private lives may be, should be facing prison time or other legal sanctions.

Stewart was convicted of lying to government investigators. According to the indictment, she told investigators that she sold about 4,000 shares in a pharmaceutical company in 2001 because she had arranged with her stock broker to sell when the price fell below a certain level. The government persuaded a jury that in fact she sold because her broker tipped her off that the company’s CEO was suddenly trying to sell all his shares. (The CEO had gotten advance word that the Food and Drug Administration was about to turn down his application for an anti-cancer drug. The FDA has since changed its mind about the drug.)

Stewart’s case is often reported as involving insider trading. But Stewart was not an insider, and the government never brought that charge against her. Thus she was charged with lying, while not under oath, about something she did that was not illegal. For this she is facing nearly half a year in prison, followed by confinement at home, and a fine.

U.S. attorneys possess powers that would put the Inquisition and Star Chamber to shame. Insider trading is a hopelessly vague legal concept that has been applied in bizarre cases. Whether or not Stewart lied when she spoke to investigators, it is certain that she knew she was entering a legal Twilight Zone in which anything she said could be used against her. She would have been better off saying nothing, but that does not change the fact that the government has the abusive power to go on fishing expeditions. It can question people in search of charges and then hit them with an “obstruction of justice” charge for their answers even though no evidence of actual wrongdoing is turned up. The Stewart case is a travesty of justice.

Fischer’s case, if anything, is even worse. In 1992 the eccentric Fischer, who is given to making morally outrageous statements about Jews and the 9/11 attacks, traveled to Yugoslavia to play a chess match against the man he beat for the championship 20 years earlier, Boris Spassky. (He won again.) At the time, the United Nations had U.S.-supported sanctions in place against Yugoslavia, which was ruled by Slobodan Milosevic and was in the midst of civil war. Fischer was charged with trading with the enemy. As the U.S. government put it in a letter to him in 1992, “We consider your presence in Yugoslavia for this purpose to be an exportation of services to Yugoslavia in the sense that the Yugoslav sponsor is benefitting from the use of your name and reputation.” For this he may face a decade behind bars.

In a free society, the government may not tell people where they can travel. Fischer did not go to Yugoslavia to plot attacks against Americans. He went to play chess. Neither the U.S. government nor the UN had legitimate authority to interfere.

Once again we have a case in which the government refuses to let peaceful citizens alone. Whatever one thinks of Fischer’s past conduct or inflammatory statements, he has done nothing deserving of criminal indictment and imprisonment.

If we measure a society’s decency by how much or little its government harasses people who have not aggressed against others, the United States is hurtling in an ominous direction.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.