When the Consumer Product Safety Commission went after its product, Craig Zucker’s company protested. Buckyballs may have injured people who ate them, but they weren’t meant to be eaten. “Join the Buckin’ Fight,” it said, and “save our balls.” Now Zucker himself is facing an administrative lawsuit.
As Walter Olson points out , this is the first time the CPSC has gone after an executive in a recall case. Zucker is now personally a respondent in the CPSC's administrative actions. That means he, personally, is at risk of having to pay for customers’ refunds and retailers’ costs. And as Olson says, “One reason it’s rare to mount open and disrespectful resistance to a federal agency is that agencies have so many ways to make businesspeople’s lives unhappy.”
Of course, it’s difficult to know whether the CPSC is going after Zucker because his company put up a public fight when the agency went after it. It’s not exactly the focus of the administrative law judge’s decision that Zucker could be added to the case. Indeed, presumably if the CPSC tried to charge Zucker with publicly opposing it, the commission wouldn’t get away with such a blatant First Amendment violation.
But the possibility that this is retaliation is there. Zucker’s company did make this unusually public challenge, and the CPSC did take this unusually (and innovatively) harsh action. It’s enough to make you wonder—and it may be enough to deter the next businessman whose venture is being crushed by the CPSC.
And that’s a problem. It’s especially a problem when we consider that this isn’t the only case where the government has gone after someone it had a political reason to go after. Qwest CEO Joseph P. Nacchio went to prison for insider trading after refusing to turn over customers’ phone records to the National Security Agency. Frank VanderSloot faced audits by the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Labor after President Obama’s reelection campaign highlighted him as a Mitt Romney donor . A federal prosecutor was accused of treating Maryland farmer Randy Sowers more harshly in a forfeiture case because he spoke to the press . And the IRS targeted libertarian and conservative nonprofits, sometimes denying them recognition as nonprofits .
People learn from what they see, and the government is a powerful teacher. If the federal government wants to reduce the American people to a state of quivering fear—if it wants us not to dare to criticize official actions or resist official plans—it’s on the right track.
If it wants us to be free and brave, however, it needs to turn back in the direction of individual rights.