Incarcerated for writing a science fiction novel? Or not? Probably not, but we remain concerned.

View 841 Monday, September 01, 2014

“Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.”

President Barack Obama, January 31, 2009


I pretty much took the weekend off – well, I worked on the upcoming column for Chaos Manor Reviews in which I’m going to talk about how we have updated Chaos Manor in the years since I wrote the last column – and I did some work on fiction, but today, Labor Day, Alex came over with some friends and we did a barbeque.

So I was going to skip today’s day book, but I can’t. It’s not often that I pay much attention to the Daily Kos, but this entry got my full attention: 

A Dorchester County, Maryland, teacher was taken in for an "emergency medical evaluation," suspended from his job, and barred from setting foot on another public school. Authorities searched his school, Mace’s Lane Middle School in Cambridge, for weapons. As classes resumed, parents worried that their children were in danger, so police decided to remain on the premises to watch over them.

What happened? The teacher, Patrick McLaw, published a fiction novel. Under a pen name. About a made-up school shooting. Set in the year 2902.

I first saw it in a Science Fiction Writers of America Forum, and apparently it’s all true, and the author appears to still be in some kind of restraint, possibly retained for psychological evaluations or something. Now I hope there’s some terrible mis-reporting, and it’s all exaggerated, but this is designed to arouse paranoid feelings in science fiction writers. All fiction writers for that matter.

I’ll have more on this if I find out more. Breaking news is generally unreliable. I sure hope that is the case here, but I fear it is not. It happened days ago, and there is still no report of any charge or specification, or of what evidence was used to cause a warrant for search of his house.  Obviously the authorities have the right and for that matter the duty to search the school, but if their only reason for doing so is that a teacher wrote an SF novel about a school massacre set in another century, they must not have very much to do in Cambridge Maryland.  Do judges routinely issue warrants for searches in such circumstances? 


I have found this.  From the Atlantic:

From the Dept. of Insane and Dangerous Overreactions to Fictional Threats:

A 23-year-old teacher at a Cambridge, Md. middle school has been placed on leave and—in the words of a local news report—"taken in for an emergency medical evaluation" for publishing, under a pseudonym, a novel about a school shooting. The novelist, Patrick McLaw, an eighth-grade language-arts teacher at the Mace’s Lane Middle School, was placed on leave by the Dorchester County Board of Education, and is being investigated by the Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office, according to news reports from Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The novel, by the way, is set 900 years in the future.

Here is part of a breathless, law enforcement-friendly report from WBOC, which describes itself as "Delmarva’s News Leader":

He’s a man with many names, and the books he has written have raised the concerns of the Dorchester County Board of Education and the Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office.
Early last week the school board was alerted that one of its eighth grade language arts teachers at Mace’s Lane Middle School had several aliases.  Police said that under those names, he wrote two fictional books about the largest school shooting in the country’s history set in the future.  Now, Patrick McLaw is placed on leave.
Dr. K.S. Voltaer is better known by some in Dorchester County as Patrick McLaw, or even Patrick Beale.  Not only was he a teacher at Mace’s Lane Middle School in Cambridge, but according to Dorchester Sheriff James Phillips, McLaw is also the author of two books: "The Insurrectionist" and its sequel, "Lillith’s Heir."


And of course the Soviets used to do precisely that: send dissidents to the psychiatric ward.  I confess that the enthusiasm with which Daily KOS and the Atlantic, neither precisely a conservative publication, arouses concern; but I had yet to see any actual charge or specification of an illegal act. On what evidence were search warrants issued? Did this chap actually exhibit any bizarre behavior?  I don’t for a moment believe that someone who writes and publishes a book can’t be off his nut, but certainly the deed of writing and publishing a novel cannot possibly be prima facie evidence of homicidal mania…  In any event this chap seems to be barred from all county property and turned out from his job, with no hearing and up to this point nothing alleged other than that he wrote and published novels about a massacre in a public school; not under his own name, but under a pen name.  And if that’s all he has done, this is definitely a matter for concern.  Surely the authorities know they have not alleged any crime? 



The LA Times has a story that adds a significant detail:

Reports circulated this weekend that a middle school teacher in Dorchester County, Md., had been placed on administrative leave over his two futuristic novels about school violence. That is not that case, authorities tell the L.A. Times.

"It didn’t start with the books and it didn’t end with the books," State’s Attorney for Wicomico County Matt Maciarello told The Times. "It’s not even a factor in what law enforcement is doing now."

There have been no charges filed against Patrick McLaw, a teacher at Mace’s Lane Middle School in Cambridge who self-published two novels, "The Insurrectionist" (2011) and "Lilith’s Heir" (2013), under the pen name Dr. K.S. Voltaer.


Free speech supporters who believed the author was targeted for the books’ stories of school massacres in 2902 have been purchasing the novels from Amazon. "Bought this in protest of the local authorities arresting and confining this person just for being a teacher and writing a book about a school killing," reads a typical comment, one of more than 100.

In fact, McLaw has not been arrested. No warrant for his arrest has been issued.

Concerns about McLaw were raised after he sent a four-page letter to officials in Dorchester County. Those concerns brought together authorities from multiple jurisdictions, including health authorities.

McLaw’s attorney, David Moore, tells The Times that his client was taken in for a mental health evaluation. "He is receiving treatment," Moore said.

Because of HIPPA regulations mandating privacy around healthcare issues, he was unable to say whether McLaw has been released.

McLaw’s letter was of primary concern to healthcare officials, Maciarello says. It, combined with complaints of alleged harassment and an alleged possible crime from various jurisdictions led to his suspension. Maciarello cautions that these allegations are still being investigated; authorities, he says, "proceeded with great restraint."

What’s more, he told The Times, "everyone knew about the book in 2012."

McLaw, who is also known as Patrick Beale, was placed on administrative leave on Aug. 22 due to "concerns raised by law enforcement," according to an official statement by the Dorchester County Public Schools.


The problem here is that there is still no specification of whatever he did to warrant search of his house, or commitment to involuntary mental treatment.  One would think that this would be forthcoming.  Getting a search warrant for someone’s house when he is already apparently undergoing mental evaluation should require that the culprit has done something; but since we don’t know the text of this mysterious letter, or anything about his four page letter to officials in Dorchester County; one would think that by now there would be enough known to allow release of some details justifying the official action.  The Soviets used to send dissidents to the mental ward on the grounds that you had to be crazy to resist communism.  What is it that this chap didn’t believe, or believed about the school board?  And why were his books ever mentioned at all in the original story?

Maybe he had fits behaved in a way inconsistent with being a high school teacher: if so he ought to be removed from a classroom, but how does that justify searching his house? But in fact the only violence in the story is in his books.  There must be more to this, and it is possible that it’s just lousy news reporting, but I confess I am still worried.


One reader feels about the way I do:

Dr. Pournelle,

Regarding that Soviet style action against that writer/teacher in Maryland, I’m willing to pledge $250 toward his legal defense if the facts are as stated. I want to say unbelievable, but I can’t anymore.

I don’t have a lot of extra time to research the matter, but I trust that you and your readership will be able to ferret out the truth. Just put the word out and I’ll send a check.



It seems so unlikely that we can hope it’s just bad reporting on the part of Atlantic and Daily Kos, but it’s important enough to be certain that this is all it was.  I’ll continue to watch it.




On the Other Hand


Regarding the fellow who self-published a book about a school massacre, here is what you have to do to earn only a reprimand but not a suspension:

Who knows what they would do with the author of the Hunger Games, in which children are trained and set loose to hunt and kill one another.



But that link led me to this one: and I do believe the world has gone mad.



Incarcerated writer

It sounds like the teacher is being held under a law dealing with being "a danger to himself or others." That is a medical hold. Unfortunately HIPPA ties the hands of all involved on releasing information, while the press is free to speculate. The most common cause of such things is a threat to harm himself (threats to harm others is of course criminal).

The claims of harassment could be related to rebuffed romantic advances towards a coworker. Which could explain a letter indicating he may wish to harm himself. I guess we will find out more as time goes on.

Al Lipscomb


I really hope that’s all there is to the story.  Bad reporting and a rush to get something out without thinking it through,.


And finally for the night we have:

CAMBRIDGE — As police began investigating allegations made against Patrick McLaw in mid-August, concerns about a four-page letter he sent to a deputy school administrator led health officials to seek an emergency evaluation of the Mace’s Lane Middle School teacher, Wicomico County State’s Attorney Matt Maciarello said Tuesday.

McLaw’s attorney has told the L.A. Times that McLaw is getting treatment.

Although some reports have focused on McLaw’s books, leading to online petitions calling for McLaw’s release and reinstatement as a teacher, Maciarello said he wasn’t sure “how it turns out (in some media reports) that Mr. McLaw was arrested over his books.”

McLaw has not been arrested and has not been charged, Maciarello said, and is “of course, presumed innocent.”

Although McLaw’s books are “relevant,” Maciarello said, the writings were not a primary factor in the investigation.


Eventually it gets to some specifications of actual actions, which might have been sufficient to justify a warrant to search his house, and an admission that perhaps the authorities ought to have been more forthcoming:


Health officials were brought in because of concerns that it was more a “mental health matter,” Maciarello said.

“Nobody was overreacting,” the prosecutor said of that meeting. “Everyone was acting calmly,” with safety and due process for McLaw the primary concerns.

Law enforcement officials brought the health department in “from the ground floor,” Maciarello said. “They did everything right. We have a very proactive and engaged health officer. This wasn’t an overreaction by law enforcement.”

Maciarello described McLaw’s letter as a “farewell address/resignation” and said the Wicomico County health officer was “chiefly concerned” about the letter.

Health officials filed an emergency petition and McLaw was taken to Peninsula Regional Medical Center, the prosecutor said. McLaw was represented at a subsequent court hearing, at which Maciarello was called to testify, by Salisbury attorney David Moore.

Moore, who told the L.A. Times in a story published Tuesday morning that McLaw is getting treatment, could not be reached for comment by presstime Wednesday.

Under Maryland law, court records concerning petitions for emergency evaluations are not publicly available.

As a result of those restrictions, the ongoing investigation and concerns about due process, Maciarello said, officials initially had opted to “release the bare minimum” about McLaw.

“Law enforcement at all times had concern for him and his family,” he said.

But public concerns caused officials to be more forthcoming.

“This is about trust in your government,” Maciarello said. “It’s important to be as transparent as possible.”


We can all agree with that.  So the story may be no more than it seems to be.  But as Glenn Reynolds said in an email to me, the pity is that things have go to so bad that we are ready to believe the authorities have lied.  “I’m deeply concerned, and as Stephen Green says in Trifecta, what does it say that we no longer trust the media, the schools, law enforcement, or the DA to tell the truth here?”  Precisely.  It was they who put out the first press release mentioning McLaw’s books and giving no reasons for search warrants other than those books.

The moral of this story is that if you don’t want to be thought a tyrant, don’t act like one. And if you don’t want to be thought to be covering something up, don’t act as if you are.  American education is not what it was when I was younger, but some vestiges of the once world envied public education of the United States remains, and we aren’t as easily snowed as apparently the authorities thought we were.  They claim they were trying to protect the young man’s reputation while taking suitable precautions.  They could have done that a great deal better.  Perhaps they know that now.  We may hear more of this and we may not, but it does not appear to be a full fledged violation of the First and Fourth Amendments. 

For more on all this see which has a rational presentation with details.



Freedom is not free. Free men are not equal. Equal men are not free.




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