ALEXANDRIA, VA — An Indiana man thought he had the freedom to speak about controversial topics and teach others what he knows. The Federal Government disagreed. This week that man found out that the penalty for free speech is 8 months in federal prison. He taught people how to beat polygraph tests. The case has sparked a debate about whether or not the right to lie, or teach others to lie, should be protected under the First Amendment.
“My wife and I are terrified,” said Chad Dixon, of Marion, Indiana. “I stumbled into this. I’m a Little League coach in Indiana…never in my wildest dreams did I somehow imagine I was committing a crime.”
Dixon, 34, had been struggling to find work as an electrical engineer and began working as a polygrapher. He soon began giving lessons on defeating the polygraph test.
A polygraph test measures blood pressure, sweat activity, respiration and movement to identify people who lie or try to beat the test. While polygraph data is not admissible in court, polygraphers use the information to detect what they believe are lies, followed by an attempt to elicit a confession to confirm their suspicions.
Polygraph instructors, like Dixon, claim to teach methods that help the test-subjects avoid scrutiny. Polygraph countermeasures include controlled breathing, muscle tensing, tongue biting and mental arithmetic.
“It may be unfortunate for federal law enforcement … but it is protected speech to tell people how to lie on a polygraph,” Dixon’s lawyer, Nina Ginsberg, said.
Despite having no criminal record, the Federal government found out about his lessons and began pursuing him for obstructing federal proceedings and wire fraud.
Federal district Judge Liam O’Grady seemed somewhat sympathetic to Dixon’s argument that merely imparting controversial knowledge to others was a form of free speech, telling attorneys at one point, “There’s nothing unlawful about maybe 95 percent of the business he conducted.”
The other 5 percent? Explicitly advising prospective federal employees they should lie about having received his training.
Prosecutors asked the federal judge to send a “strong message” in sentencing Dixon. They reportedly are seeking to discourage potential whistleblowers, criminals, and spies from obtaining national security clearance and gaining access to state secrets. The federal government uses lie detector tests on 70,000 job applicants per year.
“It does not require much looking to find a respected scientist who has convincingly argued that polygraphs do not operate above chance levels and are therefore detrimental to national security,” McClatchy reported Nina Ginsberg as writing in her response to prosecutors. “Mr. Dixon has done nothing that warrants the government’s attempts to make him the poster child for its newly undertaken campaign to wipe out polygraph countermeasures training.”
Dixon taught between 70 and 100 students. Now regretting his classes, he said his training amounted to little more than telling people to relax, pinch their abdominal muscles, and silently count backward in increments of three on certain questions.
“Far from embarking on a ‘career of criminal deceit,’ Mr. Dixon was a struggling owner of a small family-owned electrical contracting company, with a third child on the way, who saw a way to stave off foreclosure and protect his family from ballooning financial debt,” Ginsberg wrote. “The government’s exaggerated attempts to lay the fate of society’s most vulnerable and the protection of our national borders at Mr. Dixon’s feet should be seen for what it is.”
“Nothing like this has been done before,” said U.S. Customs and Border Protection official Josh Schwartz, according to McClatchy. “Most certainly our nation’s security will be enhanced. There are a lot of bad people out there…this will help us remove some of those pests from society.”
These pests apparently include those exercising their freedom to speak and teach others what they know. Prosecutors extracted a guilty plea from Dixon late last year to charges of obstruction and wire fraud. His current lawyer, Ginsburg, says that his plea was given after unsolicited advice from lawyers across the country. She contests his innocence and wants to fight the charges.
A father of four, Dixon’s family has suffered from this ordeal and his home has gone into foreclosure due to the investigation. And now he will be sent to prison.
Judge O’Grady’s sentence will bolster federal prosecutors’ pursuit of similar cases. He stated, “a sentence of incarceration is absolutely necessary to deter others.”