A Further Inquiry into the History and Usage of the F-Word
by Ari Armstrong, August 7, 2003
A few scattered points didn't make my August 1 opinion piece in the Rocky Mountain News (reproduced below). To read Eric Vanatta's excellent legal document about the "f-word," see www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/fword1.html.
* Even though some reports claimed the student in question reach a plea agreement, actually it was a "deferred prosecution," according to Vanatta, which means the matter will not be prosecuted if the student completes 16 hours of community service and stays out of trouble.
* Could it be that the student who smoked in the bathroom and called his vice principal names would have a better time doing something other than sitting in boring classes all day? Children do not always wish to be confined to the activities we assign them.
* Most schools in the U.S. are run by the government. It seems that some people are losing the ability to distinguish between civil society and the government. For some, the solution to every problem is a political one, and the response to any conflict is to bring in the armed police of the state.
* I think we're witnessing the tragedy of false rebellion. That is, some students rebel against the sometimes stifling, mind-numbing routine of the government-run schools, but their rebellion is just another form of silliness. Instead of taking charge of their education, they resort to smoking, calling their principals names, wearing goofy clothes, etc., and they imagine their rebellion elevates them from the pettiness around them. That it doesn't leads to feelings of alienation.
* On August 1, Paul Ouranda sent in the following letter:
Hi Ari -
I think Ouranda's comments are compatible with what I previously wrote. The theater owner wants to provide an environment suitable for watching films or plays, which precludes obnoxious, loud behavior. Paying customers have an expectation that the theater owner will maintain order, and so, yes, yelling in a theater interferes with the property rights of both the theater owner and the patrons.
Speakout: The in-'F'-able quality of language
Bob Tschirki can relax. No, students are not now permitted to run through the halls yelling "F--- you!" Neither the Ramones nor Motley Crue now rule Colorado's schools, nor do the "numerous other mainstream and well-respected artists [who] have used the family of 'F' words in their music performances," as Colorado Public Defender Eric Vanatta mentions in a legal document.
All the hoopla started when Vanatta filed a motion July 1 with the Larimer County District Court titled, "Motion to Dismiss: The Constitutionality of F---, 'F---er' and 'F---ing F---'." Vanatta was serving as defense attorney for a Fort Collins student, who, when confronted by a vice principal for smokin' in the boy's room, proceeded to call the principal some nasty names.
The student was suspended from school, a move Vanatta calls "entirely legal and appropriate." Vanatta was defending the student against a criminal charge - "Interference with staff, faculty, or students of educational institutions" - a Class 3 misdemeanor that carries with it a penalty that ranges from a $50 fine to a six-month stint in jail and a $750 fine.
Which brings us back to the comments of Tschirki, executive director for the Colorado Association of School Executives. In a July 29 statement, Tschirki says his organization "takes exception" to Vanatta's motion.
Quite sensibly, Tschirki argues that "public schools have the legal right and responsibility to set high standards for behavior and enforce them with strong disciplinary policies." And, in his motion, Vanatta agrees. But Vanatta doesn't think it should be a crime to call people names. He writes, "The prosecution is attempting to hold a juvenile criminally responsible for the age-old tradition of name-calling." It is in this context that Vanatta argues, "F--- is an entirely legal word that may be uttered in public places so long as the manner in which it is uttered will not cause a violent reaction." He cites several court decisions to back up his claim.
The whole incident resulted from a triple failing of common sense.
First, the principal decided to call in the police for a relatively minor disciplinary problem. Second, instead of laughing in the principal's face, as the police officer should have done, he or she chose to proceed with the nonsense of the criminal charge. Third, instead of filing the charge in the wastebasket where it belonged, a Larimer County prosecutor decided to press on.
This case was custom made for the comedians. But the most hilarious aspect of it is that it's all funded by taxpayers! Yes, Colorado taxpayers forked over their hard-earned dollars to at least three public officials - all to provide a history lesson and constitutional defense of the "F" word. Taxpayers are the ones getting . . . well, you know.
I certainly don't fault Vanatta, who met his duty with scholarly wit.
Indeed, his clever document is the only part of these government "services" for which I would have voluntarily paid. And despite the seeming triviality of the case, Vanatta's motion raises some very basic issues.
The student originally was charged with disorderly conduct. The charge was changed, for reasons unknown to Vanatta, to "Interference with staff etc." Is it really necessary to have all these redundant statutes?
In his book Drug War Addiction (which I helped edit), San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters tells of finding Colorado's single-volume statute book from the late 1800s. Today the statutes fill many volumes and no regular citizen can hope to comprehend them. Masters believes "the number of laws itself" contributes to our problems. He notes we aren't really safer now, though "lawlessness is commonplace, even in vogue."
Another matter is the inherent tensions of any government-run enterprise. Vanatta invokes the theory of "a clear and present danger" to explain why yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater is outlawed but yelling the other "F" word isn't. But his account is not convincing.
After all, if I stood up and shouted "F---!" in a theater, I would expect to be escorted out and cuffed if I resisted. The real distinction is that theaters are privately owned, whereas government-run schools are not.
I asked Vanatta why, if the "F" word is protected speech, a student may be suspended from a government-run school for saying it. Obviously, students may not be suspended for saying other things the administration may not like. Vanatta had no ready answer. That's not surprising, given the ambiguities of government ownership.
But Vanatta's lesson in the birds and bees of politics is already a classic.
Ari Armstrong edits www.FreeColorado.com.