Don't believe everything you read, especially if it comes with instructions to forward to everybody you know. David Emery, your guide to Urban Legends and Folklore
, has profiled hundreds of urban legends, chain letters, and hoaxes. Here are ten of my favorites from his collection--all of them focusing on civil liberties issues.
As one of the plaintiffs in an early public school prayer case and founder of American Atheists, the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair was one of the most vitriolic critics of religion of the entire 20th century. But did she ever talk the FCC into considering a proposal to deny licenses to religious broadcasters, or to ban religious references from television and radio? Look back on the 30-year history of this strange urban legend.
Some sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are up for renewal in 2007. If those sections expire, will black voting rights expire with them? No, not really. Black voting rights are actually guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment (1870), though making those rights a reality in the segregated South was a central challenge of the civil rights movement.
In 2004, two Democratic representatives who opposed the Iraq War proposed a broad draft reinstatement law as a form of protest. Although it never stood the faintest chance of passing, it was enough to strike fear into the hearts of many men aged 18-25, as well as their families.
The ACLU, long a supporter of individual religious liberty, has never opposed the use of religious symbols on headstones--but that hasn't stopped some of its more careless critics (such as right-wing talk radio host Michael Savage) from claiming exactly the opposite.
The ACLU is a favorite target of baseless email chain letters. Here's one that even quotes an imaginary ACLU employee who uses the phrase "we must nip this in the bud immediately." And no, the imaginary employee isn't named Barney Fife--I already checked.
A group of right-wing activists were arrested by Philadephia police for disrupting a gay pride event by blocking traffic, shouting hateful slogans through megaphones, and allegedly attempting to incite a riot. They were ultimately let off the hook with minimal sentences. In email chain letter terms, that somehow became a 47-year prison sentence for public Bible reading.
One email chain letter states that former attorney general Janet Reno claimed in a 1994 60 Minutes interview that conservative Christians were cultists, and implied that social workers might take their kids away if they were flagged as such. The only problem is that Janet Reno was not interviewed by 60 Minutes in 1994, and never made any such comments about conservative Christians in later interviews.
This particularly wacky urban legend seems to have originated in Ireland itself.
Amina Lawal once faced a death sentence for alleged adultery, but she was acquitted and released in 2003. She is still very much alive--as is the obsolete petition demanding that she be spared.
The EPA's 2005 Children's Environmental Exposure Research Study (CHEERS) was slated to test the effects of pesticide on young children, but not quite in the creepy manner described in this chain letter.