After hearing about the charges of wiretapping brought against Salisbury University student Jake Burdett, Her Campus Salisbury wanted to catch up with him. In October 2018, Burdett was participating in a protest at Congressman Andy Harris’ office in Salisbury, MD. Burdett live-streamed the protest on Facebook, unbeknownst to the consequences it could have. In an exclusive interview with the junior political science major from Howard County, MD, Her Campus finally heard Jake’s story.
HC: How do you like SU?
JB: I like it better than I liked Towson [University]. I wanted more of a medium-sized school like Towson, but I didn’t really put myself out there, so I didn’t make any friends, I didn’t join any clubs or anything like that. I was always bored so I decided to come here because I already had friends here. I didn’t want to make the same mistakes I made at Towson, so I [got] involved with the clubs like College Democrats, for example, and a local community group called Lower Shore Progressive Caucus which is like a local progressive activist group. From there, they [Lower Shore Progressive Caucus] convinced me to run for like a local office, something called the Democratic Central Committee, which I ended up running for and winning. It’s an eight-person committee. I like Salisbury University because it’s a small, rural community, it’s a lot easier to break out into the scene and make an impact.
HC: What do you want to do with your major?
JB: Ideally one day, I would like to run for a higher office just because I feel like both political parties at this point are largely bought off by the same, big money corporate donors. I’d say the Republicans are bought off more than the Democrats are, but by-in-large, the Democrats are still corrupt in many ways. I’m like a big-time Bernie Sanders-type progressive. There [weren’t] any of those in politics before now and with his 2016 [election] run, there are a lot more of them, but there still needs to be more kind of fighting the establishment. So, ideally, long-term run for a higher office to make the biggest impact that I can, but until then, I’m thinking about working the nonprofit field. Like ones that I already do a lot of volunteer work [with] now. One that I’m working with now, Progressive Maryland, have done a lot of stuff for the Fight for Fifteen ($15 minimum wage legislation).
HC: I understand you are an advocate for Marijuana legalization, why did you become such a strong advocate?
JB: Believe it or not, I am very progressive now, but I was not always progressive, meaning politics was not something that was really talked about in my family. So, I never knew if I was liberal, if I was conservative or what just because it wasn’t brought up or explained in any of my classes. I didn’t watch the news or anything like that, so I was largely ignorant when it came to politics or what my ideology was. I didn’t know what my parents’ ideology was either because they didn’t talk about it but, just because they don’t talk about it doesn’t mean they don’t still have an ideology, whether they realize it or not. Nothing was explicitly given to me like, ‘This is how you should think, this is what you should think,’ but [even] interacting with my parents and following them growing up still had a subconscious effect on me. Whether they describe it that way or not, it was still their doing.
HC: Were you against marijuana?
JB: I didn’t shame them [friends] for doing it, but the anti-drug propaganda was shoved down my throat for years, so I would just sit around in the blunt circle with all my friends and not take it. For three years I would sit and have great self-control and I could still have fun and be a part of it but just not smoke. Then, the end of 11th grade during spring break, I finally decided to try it and I really liked it and have done it very consistently ever since then and smoked as a recreational user. Once I did it and realized it is not how it is portrayed in the TV shows– you can still be a responsible and productive person and do it, that also made me question everything else in the system–that led to me becoming progressive.
HC: What were your goals going into the rally?
JB: The rally was organized by a group called MDMJ (Maryland Marijuana Justice) which is dedicated to marijuana legalization advocacy and they’re a sister group of a group called DCMJ (District of Columbia Marijuana Justice). They were very influential in getting [marijuana] legalized in Washington D.C. so, this was not a protest put together or organized by [myself], it was put together by MDMJ and I just went along for the ride because I support the cause, I like the group, and protests can be fun sometimes.
I didn’t really know what to expect going into it, but once we got there they said the protest was against [Senator] Andy Harris on the Eastern Shore who’s ranked in the top five worst congressmen on the issue of marijuana, and both MDMJ and DCMJ had a long running vendetta against him because even when it was getting legalized in DC, he was still trying to use his power at the federal level to get it blocked. So, they had a beef with him and they thought for whatever reason, ‘If we could get Andy Harris to agree to a conversation with us we can change his mind on this issue.’
HC: Burdett had seen the protest as an opportunuity to become more politically active and he stated that live-streaming the protest was not done out of malicious intent because Harris’ office itself is public because it is taxpayer funded. Unbeknownst to Burdett, the whole office building itself is private.
JB: There are thirty of us and we all go up seven flights of stairs to the seventh floor. Our protest here in Salisbury was at 4:20 p.m., but the DCMJ they had their protest at noon that day at his D.C. office, where there were actual planned arrests there. They smoked joints in Andy Harris’ office, which would be a big deal [at Salisbury] but in D.C., it’s legalized and you get like a $100 fine. That was the plan you know; do something outrageous like that to make the news and it worked.
That happened like four hours before ours and we had promoted ours on Facebook. They were expecting us in Andy Harris’ office. We get to the seventh floor but we [didn’t] know which office space was his. It was around thirty of us just walking around looking for his office space, so we could go in, but because they were expecting us, they were looking out for us and they just saw us stumbling around in the hallway. They did the smart thing of trying to defuse the situation and their staffer came out of the office, into the hallway, and then said, ‘Hey! I know you guys are here to protest Andy Harris,’ and we were all live-streaming at this point because the leader of MDMJ or DCMJ had told us to livestream the protest; most protests are live-streamed.
So, we’re all on our phones and we make our demand, ‘We want our meeting with Andy Harris.’ He [the staffer] says, ‘Look you can’t meet with Andy Harris since this is an unscheduled [meeting] but I would be happy to talk to some of you, but I can’t fit all thirty of you in the office, only like six of you.’ So, I’m one of the six people that gets selected to go in. We’re all still recording at this point, he brings the six of us in and we sit down and then he says, ‘You guys have to stop recording. You can’t record in here or we will escort you out of the building.’
I’m thinking, ‘This is a protest. I am perfectly fine being escorted out of the building.’ So, they say, ‘It is an office policy,’ they don’t say ‘You can’t record because it’s illegal,’ so I had no idea that [was] even a law that you can’t record someone. I feel like it’s a generational thing where we’ve grown up in an era where everyone has a camera on their phone and is recording everything all the time without anyone’s permission, yet you don’t hear of people getting sued about it. I had no idea that was a law, even most young people I’ve talked to have no idea that was a law.
HC: Maryland Marijuana Justice co-founder, Kris Furnish, said in the Washington Post, “Is it reasonable for a 20-year-old to think that it is legal to record a staffer of a US Congressman in a public space funded by taxpayer money?” What do you think about this quote?
JB: For one, I didn’t know it was illegal to record anyone without their permission. Once it was explained to me, I could kind of understand why that law might exist for private citizens, like why I can’t record [a private individual] like you without your permission.
But when it comes to public officials, people that we’ve elected, a taxpayer funded staffer of a public official, a representative of a representative in a taxpayer funded space talking about issues of public concern; marijuana legalization, those people should not have the same privacy expectations as a normal citizen. When they go home; sure, I can’t record them, but this is a public space about public matters and concerns. I want to see what kind of agreements my public officials are making behind closed doors so it’s just a transparency thing.
HC: You are being charged with wiretapping?
JB: That’s what it’s called; the law is being used in a way it wasn’t intended for. Wiretapping is supposed to be if you’re on a phone call with someone and you record the phone call. That’s what Richard Nixon got in trouble for in the ‘60s. So many people are calling me ‘little Nixon’ as if what I did was the same thing.
HC: How did you first hear about the charges?
JB: When people started commenting on the Facebook Livestream ‘Thank you for doing this but whether you realize it or not this is technically a felony.’ So, within 24 hours, I deleted the livestream, did everything I could to try to amend my mistake, and I even called the staffer and I apologized personally to him but again, I didn’t realize that I was against the law. If I knew I never would have done it in the first place.
I tried to amend my mistake [but] at the same time, Andy Harris hates these people because they’ve just been making his life hell for the past couple of years. They went to try to also get a meeting with him at his D.C. office where he physically was ‒ he was not at the Salisbury office. When they would go to him and start talking to him he, like a coward, [sprinted] to his office so he doesn’t have to talk to them, while they’re chasing after him to get a meeting with them. He shuts the door on one woman’s foot, not very violently like her foot was just barely caught in the door but it was on video and they want to use whatever leverage they can to make Andy Harris agree to meet with them.
So, they were saying that this is technically assault ‒ closing someone’s foot in the door. If you had seen the video, I wouldn’t press assault charges over it just because she definitely, in my opinion did not get hurt from that and it was kind of just them over-blowing the situation like Andy Harris pressing charges on me; he’s over-blowing the situation and even if I did technically break the law, it was kind of the same thing with them; he technically assaulted her, but, in my opinion, it was petty for them to go after them.
I was under the impression that Harris’ office would only go after me if they went after him with the assault charges, so I spent a couple of days trying to convince the DCMJ and the MDMJ group to not press charges. After three days of begging them, I finally convinced them not to press charges, so I think I’m in the clear and then the next day, I get a call from my family saying the Salisbury Police Department just called saying they’re doing an investigation of you.
HC: How did you feel when you heard about the charges?
JB: I was really frustrated that I had put so much time and energy defending him because that was what I thought was the big obstacle was; to get the Marijuana Act to drop the charges. I was really scared honestly because I didn’t have a lawyer at the time.
HC: What did your parents think?
JB: My parents were obviously not thrilled, and they were just really scared because it sounds a lot worse. I’m taking a probation before judgement plea deal where there are two charges; a felony for reporting and for the distribution because of the livestream on Facebook that distributes automatically. Each of those have a potential five-year in-jail punishment as well as $10,000 punishment.
In reality, I’m taking a probation before judgement plea deal where one charge gets dismissed and the other one ‒ I take a three year deal where I also have to do 100 hours of community service, no drug-testing, no stay away order from Andy Harris, so I can protest him again if I want to, and if I finish the three year probation without getting in trouble, everything is expunged from my record and nothing ever happened.
HC: Burdett identifies as a democrat yet he is critical of both parties, and it has resulted in members of his local Central Committee calling for his removal.
JB: Members of our local Central Committee have wanted me to get kicked off for months now for being critical of the party, but there’s nothing in the state party laws that says you can’t criticize the party, so they can complain all they want but there won’t be a prosecution or grounds to get me removed and their attempts have failed. There [are] 3 things to do to get you kicked off:
Malfeasance; which doesn’t really mean much
Openly supporting a non-democratic candidate over a democratic candidate
Upon conviction of a felony
So as soon as this news breaks, the chair of my party was basically saying, ‘We’re going to use this to get you kicked off,’ and I am trying to explain to her it’s conviction of a felony not probation before a judgement plea deal, which is what I’m getting, and it is not a conviction. I’ve talked to lawyers about this‒ it’s not a conviction. You can try to get me removed for this again but it’s not a conviction, it’s not going to work.
HC: Burdett said Salisbury University is considering taking disciplinary action against him, which he sees as ridiculous. Salisbury’s code of conduct states ‘Conduct leading to arrest, indictment, or conviction for violation of the local, state, or federal law. They also result in disciplinary action,’ but the code also states that discipilnary action is needed if a university community member is put at risk.
JB: This was not a campus sponsored event, this was not a campus club or organization sponsored event, this is happening in Downtown Salisbury, 15 minutes away, and had nothing to do with the university campus. I don’t think I’m in violation of this, even if I did break the local, state, or federal law. I didn’t put the university at harm or the members of the university at any harm, so I am going to be really frustrated by the university if they do decide to come after me.
We had our hearing on Mar. 4, and that was to tell them any information that might not have been public and now we have to go to the actual hearing where they will determine if I actually violated the student code of conduct…if they decide that I am, then they will do whatever sanctions they decide appropriate.
HC: What did you learn about this experience? About yourself? About others?
JB: I learned one that it’s illegal to record someone without their permission in the state of Maryland. I also learned that in 38 out of 50 states, it is not illegal, so Maryland is one of few states where that is the law which should be changed. I also learned that people show their true colors and you see who had your back and who [didn’t]. I think a lot of the people agreed with me, but since the press initially was bad, they didn’t want to be seen.
The democratic central committee chair, for example, when they called her for a comment, she said she was getting reached out to and I told her, ‘You have the option to not comment at all.’ and she said, ‘Then it looks like I’m defending a felon.’ so it’s made me a lot more conscious. I already knew there was a lot of prejudice against convicts or former convicts, but now just seeing how minor my felony is and people still treat me like I’m a rapist or something.
The central committee chair literally compared me to Parkland Shooter. If you want to make the point that young white males don’t usually get as harsh punishment in the criminal justice system as a young, black, inner city male that’s completely true point to make. There is a lot of institutional racism in the justice system and me being a young, white male makes me more sympathetic; that’s a perfectly fine point to raise and it’s a discussion we should probably have of how the treatment of young, black men in the prison system is not fair and it’s too harsh, it’s a perfect discussion to raise but you can raise that discussion without comparing me to the Parkland Shooter and that’s exactly what she did. She’s trying to villainize me publicly.
I told the College Democrats about this and one girl said, ‘…and they’re still going to let you go here? But you’re a felon,’ and it’s like who cares the law isn’t always right. That’s another thing that I’ve opened my eyes to‒the bigotry.
HC: If you could do it all over again, what would you do differently?
JB: I would stop recording when I was asked to, although I’m hoping that I can make lemonade out of lemons with this. They say any publicity is good publicity, but it sucks so far because I haven’t been able to reach out to the press and comment because you know it’s a pending case, but I’m hoping because of our demonstration, because of Ben Jealous being on board after March 22nd, I can reach out to those boards and actually defend myself and clear my name, make lemonade out of lemons and make something positive.
The Salisbury community wishes our fellow Seagull the best of luck with his future!