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Washington Examiner
December 13, 2005

Losing our capacity for civil discourse

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:

Let us, as the lawyers say, stipulate that the First Amendment arguments in these cases are sound: Public schools can't punish students for speech posted on their personal Web sites if it isn't truly threatening or doesn't disrupt school activities. To judge by news stories and commentary about these cases, though, you'd think that's all there is to say about the matter.

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.

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