My favorite part of the journalism business is meeting – and liking – people I didn’t think I ever would. Jack Thompson falls squarely in that category.
Type his name into Google (no quotation marks required) and you’ll get more than 10 pages of, “Everyone hates Jack Thompson, including Jesus and his own mother.” That’s because Thompson is the main man behind the crusade to ban violent video games from being sold to minors – and the Internet is populated by video game-playing kids.
If you’re an adult and from South Florida (like me), you might remember Thompson leading the PR campaign against Miami rappers 2 Live Crew back in the early ’90s. I usually dislike extremists on all sides, but Thompson is as appealing as he is annoying, mostly because he’s an outsider even among conservatives. Maybe it says more about me than him, but loners tilting at windmills arouse my sympathy, even if they’re my windmills. (I play violent video games and listen to obscene rap.)
I interviewed Thompson in 2005 for South Florida magazine, right as his autobiography was being published. I thought I wrote a balanced profile, but Thompson told me he hated it, and we never spoke again. In 2008, he was disbarred, and I was probaby the only journalist unhappy to hear that.
Run with the Devil
A born-again Christian conservative who befriends Democrats and attacks Republicans? You don’t know Jack.
By Michael Koretzky, 2005
On a balmy Wednesday in October, only a few weeks before his autobiography went on sale, Jack Thompson was lunching at the exclusive Miami City Club, cutting a brownie with a fork and chatting nonchalantly about what it’s like to run over a prostitute with a car.
At nearby tables, attorneys from some of South Florida’s most respected law firms were boasting loudly about their clients, their cases and their billable hours. The members-only Miami City Club is a favorite lunch spot for the legal profession. Thompson is an attorney, but his lunchtime conversation was unlike anyone else’s.
Even though he sat by a window on the 55th floor of the Wachovia building, Thompson didn’t once glance at the breathtaking view of the Miami skyline. Instead, he was focused entirely on his dessert and his desire: to serve God as a “culture warrior” against the entertainment industry.
So far, he’s done one hell of a job. But now it’s getting weird.
To be clear, Thompson has never run over a prostitute. But he thinks too many of today’s teenagers have – in video games.
Banning children’s access to these games is the latest crusade for the 54-year-old born-again Christian who runs a solo practice out of his Coral Gables house. It follows some notable successes (like helping get Howard Stern off the air in Miami) and some spectacular failures (like running against Janet Reno for state attorney in 1988 and insisting she declare herself straight, gay, or bisexual).
The prostitute Thompson often talks about is a character in Grand Theft Auto, one of the most popular video game series of all time. It’s bad enough that the goal of the game is to carjack, rob, and kill until you amass the fortune and the reputation to become Los Angeles’ top crime boss. But along the way, even though it doesn’t help you achieve your objective, you can run down a prostitute just for the fun of it.
“You can run her over, you can stomp her to death, you can cut her head off with a machete,” Thompson says. “I was on CNN a couple of summers ago talking about this, and CNN, to their credit, showed the bludgeoning of the prostitute. It was amazing.”
But not nearly as amazing as this: In the Grand Theft Auto games – there are four sequels to the original – you can have sex with the prostitute and then kill her, which scores you more points because you’ve saved the money you’d otherwise owe her.
“To me, that’s one of the more disturbing aspects of the game,” Thompson says with atypical understatement.
He’s not the only one who’s disturbed. For once, Thompson is on the same side as Hillary Clinton (who held a press conference last summer lambasting Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas), a lesbian Democratic state senator (North Carolina’s Julie Boseman, who has introduced a bill to ban the sale and rental of violent games to kids in her state) and a pro-choice University of Miami professor (with whom he’s writing a book on how to become a social activist).
“Most of the people on my side now are Democrats,” Thompson says with a grin. “Why do you think Democrats are primarily working with me on this? Because Democrats are more concerned with violence these days than Republicans.”
In his autobiography Out of Harm’s Way (Tyndale House), released in mid-November, Thompson even chastises George W. Bush for not campaigning harder on the “culture war” – especially after the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado. The debate about violent video games started in earnest when it was widely reported the two teenage shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, played them obsessively.
“Republicans should be surprised by this largely libertarian president’s failure to see the culture war in context of the war on terror,” Thompson wrote. “It only stands to reason that if a presidential candidate was not troubled enough by the entertainment industry’s role in Columbine to want to do something about it, he would also not be troubled by the overall coarsening of our current culture.”
Then it got weird. Only a few weeks after his autobiography went on sale, Thompson either quit or was removed by the judge – or both – from a high-profile lawsuit over violent video games. The judge accused Thompson of verbally attacking the defense’s attorneys, who work for a renowned Republican law firm.
Thompson was co-counsel in Strickland vs. Sony, an Alabama case filed against retailers and publishers of the Grand Theft Auto games. But he infuriated Judge James Moore, who had issued a gag order in the case, because he continued to do what he does best: write press releases, play to the media, and goad his opponents.
Specifically, Judge Moore cited Thompson’s public attacks on the defense, the Philadelphia-based firm Blank Rome. Thompson even wrote a letter to U.S. Sen. John Kerry: “By virtue of its massive campaign contributions to the RNC, to Bush-Cheney, to George Bush, and to Jeb Bush, this is undeniably the most powerful, most influential, most octopus-like law firm in America.”
Thompson then reminded Kerry: “A partner in this lobbyist/law firm was the chief witness in the Swift Boats Vet attack upon your Viet Nam war record…. Blank Rome has decided to pull the same ‘shoot the messenger’ strategy with me.”
Indeed, Blank Rome had made a motion to have Thompson removed from the case, citing previous Florida Bar complaints against him and his other antics (which, Thompson points out, have never resulted in any sanctions). But before Judge Moore could rule, Thompson quit. A few days later, in a scathing 18-page ruling, the judge said Thompson couldn’t quit.
“A lawyer may not simply file a ‘Notice of Withdrawal,’” the judge wrote. “Only the Presiding Judge may grant or deny a Motion to Withdraw. … This is another example of Mr. Thompson’s unfamiliarity with the practices and customs of the legal profession.”
On page 17, Judge Moore denied Thompson’s notice of withdrawal – and in the next sentence granted the defense motion to have him kicked off the case.
“It was a bizarre hearing,” Thompson concludes. “He kicked me out of a case I’m already out of. … It didn’t go well.”
Judge Moore also notified the Alabama Bar, which could revoke Thompson license to practice law in that state.
The case will continue without Thompson, but he feels betrayed by a Republican-oriented law firm that would represent companies that produce these games. In his letter to Kerry, Thompson wrote that the maker of Grand Theft Auto “is to video games what Pol Pot was to democracy in Cambodia.”
On top of everything else, Kerry never answered his letters.
Jack is wild
Thompson’s adventures in Alabama pale next to those he’s embarked on here at home (see box). But even some of his old opponents now give him grudging respect for his latest efforts – although not his approach.
One of those is Nova Southeastern law professor Bruce Rogow, who represented 2 Live Crew’s Luther Campbell in the Miami rapper’s obscenity trial in the early ’90s. The genesis of that national story was Thompson’s very public campaign against the album being sold to minors here in South Florida.
“I have read about some of his efforts, and I give Jack credit for being indefatigable,” Rogow says. “There’s no question that legitimate concerns can be raised about obscenity and violent video games, and Jack has contributed to the discussion by raising these issues.”
During the 2 Live Crew trial, Rogow says Thompson was just “a gadfly hovering around the case” and “a source of amusement.” But with video games, “if Jack focuses on young minors, and by that I mean probably under 16 – and maybe under 14, it’s hard to say – I think his concerns are legitimate. I don’t think there’s any redeeming social value in promoting violence. And to the extent that Jack is on that same wavelength, I concur. The trouble is his methods. The lack of elegance to his arguments undermines his effectiveness.”
“Elegance” is not a word that even Thompson’s supporters use. “Merciless” and “dangerous” are.
“Jack does have some characteristics of a pit bull,” says UM education professor Eugene Provenzo. “He tends to be merciless in telling the truth. … He has a certain degree of courage and intelligence that makes him very dangerous in this whole area of political and social activism. ”
Provenzo and Thompson are co-authoring a 200-page guidebook to social activism called Public Nuisance. They’re hoping to sign with a publisher this year.
“It’s a sort of a call to arms: How to write an editorial, how to use the law effectively, even how to use bumper stickers,” Provenzo explains. “American citizens need to take back power from lobbyists and power groups – whether they’re right or left or in the middle.”
Provenzo is on the left.
“I’m certainly the left compared to Jack. He should be my mortal enemy, but we’re concerned about the same things. There are things we’re never going to agree on, like abortion. But Jack and I see that video games are tremendously influential. I’m not advocating censorship, but we don’t have kids driving cars at 13 years of age and we don’t make Penthouse readily available to them.”
Provenzo has written or co-written more than a dozen books on topics ranging from science projects for kids to a teacher’s guide to using computers in the classroom. Now he’s hanging out socially with Jack Thompson.
“My colleagues are fairly aghast. What am I doing talking to this ultra-conservative white guy?” But Provenzo admires him: “He’s essentially affecting a number of areas of social policy, mostly working out of his house on a very limited budget.”
How much Thompson is affecting policy this time is hard to gauge directly. But if his enemies’ vitriol is any indication, he’s a Category 5. Type his name into Google, and you’ll see dozens of websites dedicated to video games – all of them profanely excoriating Thompson. If you log onto www.thinkgeek.com/tshirts/gaming/7a15/, you can even buy an “I Hate Jack Thompson” T-shirt for $19.99.
Even the experts opposing Thompson are perplexed at how he became Video Game Enemy No. 1.
“I don’t know that it’s so much that Jack got traction on this issue than it is the fascination that the media and the politicians have had over the elements of youth culture that are considered to be new and dangerous,” says David Kushner, the author of a book about the video game industry (Masters of Doom) and articles in national magazines like Rolling Stone and Wired. “For some reason, Jack has become the go-to guy. The fact that Democrats are consulting with Jack just shows how video game violence has become a no-lose proposition. Jack wants an audience and I don’t think he really cares who’s coming on his side. The real question is why is Hillary Clinton consulting with him?” (Thompson says Clinton isn’t, but some of the people she listens to have.)
Kushner knows Thompson well. They once shared the same lecture agent, who had the bright idea of pairing the two strong-willed men and sending them to debate video game violence on the college circuit. In 2003 and 2004, they spoke on a dozen campuses.
“The first one we did was at Hope College [in Holland, Michigan]. This was a conservative Christian college, and at one point, Jack started quoting scripture,” Kushner recalls. “The funny thing about Jack is that after the debates, we’d talk about ‘American Idol’ and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm.’ He was always interesting.”
The Thompson timeline:
November 1975 – While attending Vanderbilt Law School in Nashville, Thompson applies for a job with Dade County State Attorney Richard Gerstein. He flies to Miami and is interviewed by Gerstein’s first assistant, Janet Reno. He isn’t hired.
July 1976 – Thompson, now a Miami resident, takes the Florida bar exam. He fails.
November 1976 – After reluctantly attending church for a few months (to make his wife happy), a pastor tells Thompson to read C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity. Midway through, he says, “I became a Christian.”
February 1977 – Thompson takes the Florida Bar exam again. He passes.
September 1987 – While stuck in Miami’s morning rush hour, Thompson hears WIOD-AM radio host Neil Rogers asking men to send in pictures of themselves and list their favorite sexual activities. Rogers says one of the men will accompany him on a free vacation. Appalled, Thompson arrives at his office and writes a letter to the FCC.
October 1987 – After Thompson calls into Rogers’ show, he says he receives death threats. Reno, now State Attorney, launches an investigation. Thompson gets an injunction banning Rogers from giving out his name and address over the air, which Thompson says Rogers ignores.
November 1988 – Thompson runs for Dade County State Attorney against Janet Reno and loses, but he gets more votes than any other Republican who ever challenged Reno.
October 9, 1989 – The FCC announces fines against three radio stations that had aired the Neil Rogers Show.
December 1989 – After one of the radio stations files a lawsuit alleging that Thompson is “obsessed” with fighting obscenity and is “mentally incapacitated,” the Florida Supreme Court orders Thompson to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. He passes, prompting him to tell reporters, “I’m the only certifiably sane lawyer in Florida.”
January 1, 1990 – While at a New Year’s party with powerful state Republicans in Coral Gables, Thompson first hears about 2 Live Crew’s album As Nasty as They Wanna Be. They ask him to fight the album’s sale to children, and Thompson obliges with a media campaign that starts with coverage of Miami’s FOX Channel 7 and goes national when Broward Sheriff Nick Navarro arrests a Fort Lauderdale record store owner.Saturday Night Live parodies the 2 Live Crew controversy, with actor Kyle MacLachan portraying Thompson.
June 21, 1990 – Federal Judge Jose Gonzalez Jr. rules that As Nasty as They Wanna Be is obscene. Thompson, while he was not the attorney on the case, is flown to Washington, D.C., to appear on CNN’s Crossfire. He also appears on ABC’s Good Morning America, CBS’ This Morning and The Phil Donahue Show.
May 1992 – The U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta overturns Judge Gonzalez and rules that As Nasty as They Wanna Be is not obscene. Sheriff Navarro appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refuses to hear the case.
May 1992 — The phone rings at Thompson’s house. The voice on the other end says, “Jack, this is Ollie North.” Former Lt. Col. North had followed the 2 Live Crew case and wants Thompson’s help in similarly combating Ice T’s “Cop Killer,” a song on the rapper’s Body Count album, released on the Warner Bros. label.
July 1992 – Thompson flies to Los Angeles to appear at the Time Warner shareholders meeting with Charlton Heston. After both speak, Time Warner pulls Body Count from store shelves. The American Civil Liberties Union votes North and Thompson as “Censors of the Year.”
December 1997 – Michael Carneal, 14, shoots dead three girls at Heath High School outside Paducah, Kentucky. Five others are wounded. Thompson learns that Carneal played violent video games and watched violent movies. Thompson later visits the parents of the three slain girls in Paducah. They decide to file a lawsuit alleging that, according to Thompson, “the entertainment industry trained a boy to kill.”
April 1999 – Thompson and the parents file the lawsuit, and Matt Lauder interviews them on NBC’s Today. A week later, the Columbine shootings happen in Littleton, Colo. Thompson appears on 60 Minutes and points out the two shooters played the same video game (Doom) that Michael Carneal had. A Kentucky judge later dismisses the lawsuit filed by Thompson and the Paducah parents. A federal appeals court upholds the dismissal, and in 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear the case.
April 13, 2003 – While listening to local radio station WBGG-FM shortly after dropping his 10-year-old son at school, Thompson hears shock-jock Howard Stern interviewing the makers of a product called “Sphincterine” and graphically discussing anal and oral sex. Thompson files an FCC complaint against Howard Stern’s broadcast in the Miami market.
February 24, 2004 – Thompson hears a caller to the Stern show ask Paris Hilton’s former boyfriend, “Have you ever banged any famous nigger chicks? What do they smell like? Watermelons?” This time, Thompson calls the FCC and faxes over a complaint.
February 25, 2004 – Clear Channel Communications, which airs Stern in six markets including Miami, suspends Stern’s show. Thompson appears on CNN and MSNBC.
April 8, 2004 – The FCC proposes a $495,000 fine against Clear Channel, which pays the fine and permanently removes Stern from its airwaves.
October 6, 2004 – During his syndicated morning show, Howard Stern announces that as of Jan. 1, 2006, he will move from broadcast radio to a subscription-only satellite radio station called Sirius. He allegedly cites as one of his reasons “a lunatic lawyer in Miami.”