Free the Jeans Man!

A Businessman Defies the State

Tom Spiece is a businessman in Wabash, Indiana, known for his integrity. When he's not running his six blue-jeans and sporting-goods stores, he's helping the 4-H Club or donating shoes to needy kids.

Now, thanks to an anonymous tipster and some Indiana bureaucrats, Tom Spiece is recovering from unjust jail time. And his experience illustrates why more and more Americans think government is too nosy and too powerful.

Tom Spiece had never run afoul of the law. A few months ago, though, an investigator from the Indiana Department of Labor came to one of Spiece's stores. He ordered Spiece to hand over his employment records for 1993. The only basis for this demand was an anonymous tip that claimed Spiece illegally hired 12-year-olds and paid them under the table.

Spiece was outraged. He demanded the identity of his accuser. When the investigator refused, Spiece did what few of us would do: He ordered the Labor official off the premises.

Of course the investigator returned—with a subpoena and the county sheriff. Again Spiece was told to turn over his records. And again he refused. For good measure, Spiece wadded up the subpoena, tossed it to the officials, and told them to take a hike.

It was Spiece who took a hike—straight to jail—on charges of contempt of court. Spiece remained unyielding and vowed to remain behind bars until the state identified his accuser. His employees rallied to his defense, and soon "Free the Jeans Man!" slogans appeared on T-shirts in Wabash. Spiece became a Hoosier folk hero.

Newspaper editors who looked into the situation concluded that the state was violating Spiece's constitutional rights. They criticized Labor Department tactics and the agency's threat to fine Spiece $3,000 for each day he continued to withhold his records.

Well, time behind bars is no picnic, as I well know. So after three weeks, Spiece relented— and handed over his records. And they proved what he had maintained all along: He was innocent.

Fortunately, the story of Tom Spiece doesn't end there. Other business owners also were outraged. And Indiana lawmakers are crafting a bill that would give business owners the same right to face their accusers that is enjoyed by even burglars or drug dealers.

I say three cheers for Tom Spiece. The right to face an accuser is one of the oldest protections in our legal tradition. And anonymous charges that unleash the power of big government against an individual can destroy a person's reputation or, as in Tom Spiece's case, jeopardize his property and business.

What's more, the courage Tom Spiece displayed is the same courage our forbearers exercised—the kind that has earned each of us the rights and protections we enjoy.

It has been said that eternal vigilance is the price of our liberty. Tom Spiece just proved the point. And he also just proved that one man who is certain of his integrity is still more powerful than anonymous tipsters and overzealous bureaucrats.