My initial reaction when I read the story about the South Eastern School District bus driver who was arrested for, and convicted of, dropping an f-bomb on school property was pretty straightforward.
The driver, 60-year-old John Rineholt, was accused of deploying the curse word of mass destruction at the middle school, at 2:10 p.m. on April 29, presumably a school day.
I immediately thought, "If I had to drive middle school kids around all day long, I'd never stop using that word."
It's not clear whether Rineholt employed a justification defense during his two-day hearing before District Justice John Olwert. If he did, it didn't work. Olwert found him guilty and ordered him to pay a $349.81 fine.
In this case, it seems to me, a justification defense would have been entirely appropriate. Spend some time among a large group of middle school kids and you'll see. If they don't drive you to utter the baddest of the bad words, well, apply for sainthood or get yourself checked for some kind of neurological disorder. They're insane.
Sometimes, the baddest of the bad words is the best word, the only word adequate to express the dismay, frustration, nerve-grinding annoyance of being locked in a rolling metal box with a bunch of kids whose evolutionary processes ended sometime at the reptilian stage.
That said, the justification defense was only his second-best defense.
The First Amendment would have been his first.
The story about Rineholt's conviction said, "It is considered disorderly conduct to use 'obscene language,' or to make an 'obscene gesture' in a public place, according to Pennsylvania criminal law."
"That's just wrong," said Vic Walczak, legal director for the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
It's wrong from a couple of standpoints. It's wrong from a moral standpoint, prosecuting somebody for a crime, albeit a minor one, for uttering
a word. And it's wrong from a legal standpoint.
The law, as has been decided in numerous cases, is clearly on Rineholt's side. Profanity is protected speech under the First Amendment. There are some exceptions - the "fighting words" and the "fire in a crowded theater" things. But generally, the law says that merely dropping the f-bomb in public is not a crime.
Walczak has litigated a lot of cases regarding the use of profanity in public. One of the most famous was the recent case involving Dawn Herb, a Scranton woman who was arrested after cursing at her toilet. Perhaps you remember that case. Her toilet had overflowed and she started swearing at it. A neighbor took offense and, according to court records, told her to "shut the (baddest of the bad words) up." The neighbor, an off-duty Scranton cop, called the police, and Herb was cited for disorderly conduct. The neighbor - interestingly - wasn't.
The case went to court, and Herb was acquitted. The judge ruled that although her language "may be considered by some to be offensive, vulgar and imprudent ... such representations are protected speech pursuant to the First Amendment."
Another case Walczak is currently litigating involves a Pittsburgh man who was cited for making a hand gesture used to express extreme displeasure with the actions of another while parking in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of that city. The man, David Hackbart, was attempted to parallel park, backing into the space, when a car pulled behind him and blocked his access to the curb.
The lawsuit says, "Plaintiff expressed his discontent with the driver of the automobile behind him by giving him the middle finger."
At that moment, he heard a voice from outside his car instructing him, "Don't flip him off."
Hackbart directed his gesture toward the person, who happened to be a Pittsburgh Police sergeant.
Hackbart was convicted and ordered to pay a fine and court costs totaling $119.75. Hackbart appealed, and the Allegheny County district attorney's office wisely withdrew the charge.
The law was on Hackbart's side. The disorderly conduct law does forbid using obscene language or gestures "with the intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or recklessly creating the risk thereof."
The courts, though, have limited the definition of obscene to the U.S. Supreme Court's definition of obscenity, which relates only to the sexual content of the language, gesture or act.
Back to Rineholt. It's pretty clear the law would be on his side if he decided to appeal.
That doesn't entirely justify his action. If the use of the language occurred on school property, Walczak said, the school district might have some latitude and could discipline Rineholt.
And while I defend free speech, you might have noticed that I didn't use the baddest of the bad words in this column. That's because there's a time and a place for it, and this isn't the place. Besides, my bosses wouldn't like it, and they have the right to limit speech in these pages. The difference is the government or the police aren't making the call.
As Walczak put it, "The police can't play Miss Manners."
With all of this talk of free speech, sometimes it's not free. In cases of wrongful prosecutions in free speech cases involving profanity, Walczak said, the cases are usually settled in the $10,000 to $20,000 range.
That's a lot of (baddest of the bad words) money for a word.
Mike Arento's column appears Mondays and Fridays in Living and Sundays in Viewpoints. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 771-2046. Read more Argento columns at www.inyork.com/ydr - click on the opinion section - or visit his blog at www.mikeargento.com.