A sad fact, and a main theme of this editorial series, is that litigiousness in America has become a malignancy. We lay much of the blame on plaintiff lawyers because they are the primary champions and cheerleaders of litigation to resolve every conceivable dispute (and enrich themselves in the bargain).
But a recent trend in litigation places blame elsewhere as well. See if you can figure out exactly where from a few recent cases:
- Two students at Greenwood High School in Arkansas were suspended for their off-campus Web sites that criticized the school. One site, indicative of the students' critical prowess, was titled "F--- Greenwood." The American Civil Liberties Union sued on their behalf. In February, a federal court ruled that school officials had violated the students' First Amendment rights. It ordered the school to expunge the suspension from their records and never mention it to anyone.
- In Oregon, a 13-year-old middle-school student was suspended for his off-campus Web site. Under the heading "My S--- List," he wrote: "This is a list of people who p--- me off ... . The more stars you have, the more sh---y you are." This was followed by comments about a list of teachers, laced with more foul language. The ACLU sued on First Amendment grounds; the school settled out of court for $20,000.
- A kid in Pennsylvania was expelled from his middle school for posting his rap lyrics on his Web site, which school officials found threatening. A sample: "So watch what you say about me, / I'm everywhere son / And the word of mouth is that I'm carrying guns / Now that I'm comin' for you / what the f--- you gonna do / I come double with the pump / tons of slugs that will punish you." The ACLU sued - again - and won.
- Two Georgia high school students were suspended for comments they (and other students) made on their off-campus Web site about their English teacher. Example: "We have to take notes her way and get GRADED on how many notes we take! Filthy whore's gotta die!" The ACLU sued on their behalf; the school settled out of court for $95,000.
Seems to us there's another question worth asking, and the silence on this question is deafening: Where were the parents in all this? How in the name of sanity can responsible parents allow adolescents to publish filthy, demeaning comments about their teachers on the Internet?
No one expects teenagers to express their frustrations like little William F. Buckleys. But when they vent their spleen publicly, profanely and disrespectfully, it's time for adults to show some responsibility.
We haven't found any such thing in these cases. On the contrary. The mother of the 13-year-old in Oregon told a reporter, "I'm a normal parent. I didn't read anything that I thought was bad. If I had, I would have taken action. I'm not a bad parent." The father of the middle school rapper who boasted of carrying guns and pumping slugs into people had this to say: "Even though rap music may not be my taste, as parents my wife and I support [our son's] artistry and passion for rap music."
Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, beats them all: "Observing and making comments about how government functions," she said, "is what free speech is all about. Students should be encouraged to express themselves in this manner so that they grow into thoughtful, contributing adult citizens."
Two malignancies are feeding off each other here. In being allowed to engage in profane — but constitutional — incivility, teenagers are fueling yet another line of righteous litigation. And the litigation, in turn, is rewarding and encouraging more incivility. Adults, and worst of all parents, are assuring these kids of their constitutional right to publicly call their teacher a whore. No one, as far as we can see, is teaching them that they also have a right — and dare we say a duty? — not to do that.
This is a lesson in license. In a democracy that is losing its capacity for civil discourse, it ought to be more worrisome than it is.