EDITORIAL – ‘I’m pickin’ up good vibrations’: Ah, there’s the rub

Typically, “debate” about particular legislation occurs while it is still in “draft” form and can be amended, reshaped or remodeled, much like a piece of malleable clay. Once the legislation is passed into law, it often remains unvisited, as if it had been written in stone.

But every so often, the community’s attention is turned toward an existing edict that, once in the public spotlight, appears to be a relic from an earlier era or, indeed, a different planet altogether.

The “obscene objects” provision cited by Customs officials when they seized (and eventually returned) body massage devices from a George Town business is precisely such a statute.

This spring, Customs officials “detained” a batch of personal massagers imported for sale by Reflections, believing the items may be in violation of section 157 of the Penal Code, which contains broad language prohibiting “obscene objects or any other object tending to corrupt morals” or, even more broadly, “any such matters or things.”

Not long after Cayman 27 aired an interview with aggrieved business owner Prentice Panton, the government disseminated a press release saying the massagers had been returned to the store. In a statement, Collector of Customs Charles Clifford said the items had been “detained” but, upon review, there was “simply not enough evidence to justify a referral to the Director of Public Prosecutions.”

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“Consequently, I have instructed that the items be returned to the Reflections Store and provided appropriate advice to my officers on the matter,” Mr. Clifford said. “I have also spoken to the proprietor of Reflections concerning the matter and suggested to him that he take legal advice on section 157 of the Penal Code to ensure that none of his future imports give rise to any issues under that section of the law.”

Hold on. It isn’t Reflections proprietor Mr. Panton who should seek legal advice – after all, Mr. Clifford himself determined that Mr. Panton was correct, and the massage devices were legal – it is Mr. Clifford himself, and perhaps his Customs officers, who should be studying up on the Penal Code, or better yet, the Cayman Islands Constitution.

We would direct their attention, and all government officials, to the sections about personal liberty, respect for “private and family life,” peaceful enjoyment of property – and prohibitions that forbid government to “compulsorily take possession of any person’s property” without compelling public interest.

In regard to the massagers specifically, they are not branded or sold as “adult” devices, and are commonly found on store shelves in Grand Cayman. Officers should never have confiscated the devices in the first place, and certainly should not have “quarantined” them for several months until the head of Customs’ individual intervention.

If a Customs officer wished to confiscate any device or object based on alleged “off-label” use, then, depending on the richness of his imagination (and the influence of his Freudian id), that officer could jeopardize the inventories of every retail establishment in the country. (Heaven forfend if an especially scrupulous officer turns on a computer!)

Mr. Clifford should have, but didn’t, use this opportunity to state “on the record” that theoretical uses of devices are beyond his department’s jurisdiction, and far beneath government’s threshold of concern – and dignity.

As for the overly broad and incredibly vague language of Cayman’s obscenity law, that is something to be addressed by legislators, not business owners. Poorly written laws that are “open to interpretation” are open to selective enforcement, which is a polite way of saying abuse.

The primary issue is the assumption that government should police personal morality – a dangerous notion, at best.

After all, sometimes a massage is just a massage.

And if it’s not – it’s not the government’s business.

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  1. One of the best written articles I have read in awhile.
    Just to be clear I am going to steal: “depending on the richness of his imagination (and the influence of his Freudian id).”
    kudos to the creator of this masterpiece.