Criminalizing Adolescence

Think back to your days in middle school (or, as it was known when I went through it, junior high).  I know you don’t want to think about it, because those days in seventh and eighth grade were painful exercises.  The haircuts, the clothing, the cliques, the acne, the bizarre hormone-deranged behavior of your classmates — virtually everything about that period was disturbing and embarrassing.

cafeteria-2It’s important that you fix that grim period of your life firmly in mind, however, to fully understand the story of F.M., a seventh-grader at the Cleveland Middle School in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  The story begins with F.M. in physical education class — the place where, with kids changing clothes and taking showers, adolescent chaos reigns.  F.M. thought it would be funny to disrupt class by fake burping.  No surprise there; adolescent boys have long believed that belches and farts are the height of sophisticated humor, and virtually every grade has a kid who has somehow become a maestro at voluntarily gathering stomach gas and burping it out at the moment of maximum hilarity.  In the adolescent boy pantheon of laugh-producing activity, fake-belching is right up there with being able to make funny noises with your armpit or having a stable of gross jokes to tell at lunch so one of the kids at the table would snort milk out his nose.

When F.M. wouldn’t stop fake-burping, the teacher sent him into the hall — but F.M. kept sticking his head back in and belching some more.  By then, I’m guessing, some of the other boys in class were helpless with laughter, but the teacher had had enough.  He called the “school resource officer,” an officer in the Albuquerque police department assigned to the school.  The officer questioned F.M., who of course denied the belching incidents — and the “school resource officer” decided to place F.M. under arrest and charge him with the misdemeanor offense of disrupting school activities.  F.M. was put in handcuffs, patted down, and driven to a juvenile detention facility, where his mother picked him up later that day.  He also was suspended for the rest of the school year.

In this modern world, the inevitable response to the overreaction by the gym teacher and the “school resource officer” was an overreaction by F.M.’s mother, who sued alleging that F.M.’s constitutional rights were violated.  The school officials involved argued that F.M.’s behavior in fact constituted disruption of school activities under the New Mexico statute, which is why a federal court of appeals recently handed down a 94-page opinion holding that arresting a teenager for repeatedly burping in class wasn’t actionable.

It’s one of those stories that tells you how much things have changed.  When I was in junior high, if one of the class clowns disrupted gym class with belching the gym teacher would have gotten in his face and made him run laps until he puked, or sent him to the vice principal, a severe, scowling former Marine who kept a long wooden paddle hanging on the wall in his office.  There wasn’t a police officer — or “school resource officer” — at the school, and no teacher or school administrator would dream of calling the police on a jerky kid who was fake-burping to impress his classmates.  Paddling?  Sure.  Detention?  Absolutely.  But no handcuffs, pat-downs, or trip to juvenile detention.  And, if a kid was disciplined for disruptive behavior, his parents not only didn’t sue, they always sided with the teachers and school, and the kid was going to get punished on the home front, too.

There used to be a saying:  “Don’t make a federal case out of it.”  It was used to convey that people shouldn’t overreact to some minor incident.  Now we’ve reached the point where the gross, but nevertheless common, behavior of an adolescent boy can lead to arrest and a lengthy opinion by a federal appellate court.

I don’t consider that progress.

Like A Painful, Living Commercial

If you tried to gauge the importance of specific health issues in modern America solely on the basis of how many commercials are devoted to treatments of the condition, you would undoubtedly conclude that male impotence is the most crucial health issue confronting Americans today.

Every one of those commercials has the curious “risk factor” disclosure that states that if a guy who takes the drug experiences an erection that lasts more than four hours, he should consult a doctor.  Now there’s a lawsuit going to trial that’s like that — except the erection lasted for eight monthsEight months?  Yikes!

The case involves the installation of an inflatable penile pump gone awry.  The plaintiff says the operation left him in a condition where he couldn’t perform normally daily activities, like picking up the newspaper and riding his motorcycle.  The defendant says that sometimes operations just don’t work, through no fault of anyone, and that in any case the plaintiff should have known that there was a problem when his scrotum swelled up to the size of a volleyball.  The size of a volleyball?  Double yikes!

The plaintiff apparently stuck with the implant and had it removed only when tubing from the implant punctured his scrotum during a family trip to Niagara Falls.  Punctured his scrotum on a family trip to Niagara Falls?  Triple yikes!

I recognize that impotence causes significant emotional and psychological issues for many men suffering from that condition . . . but boy, I would have to think long and hard (bad pun alert) before running the risk of those kinds of potential consequences.

Provocative Lawsuits, And The Constitutional Rights Of Killer Whales (II)

I’m happy to report that sanity reigns in San Diego — in the federal court, at least.

Only two days after hearing argument, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller dismissed a silly lawsuit brought by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that argued that five killer whales are subject to the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and were being held in “slavery” by Sea World.  The judge ruled, quite correctly, that the 13th Amendment applies only to humans, and stated:  “As ‘slavery’ and ‘involuntary servitude’ are uniquely human activities, as those terms have been historically and contemporaneously applied, there is simply no basis to construe the Thirteenth Amendment as applying to non-humans.”

PETA’s lawyer says the organization will now decide how to proceed, and presumably will consider whether to appeal the dismissal of the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals — traditionally viewed as the most liberal of the various federal appellate courts.  If PETA decides not to appeal to that forum, it will tell us a lot about whether the whole purpose of the lawsuit was simply to elicit the publicity that PETA craves.

Provocative Lawsuits, And The Constitutional Rights Of Killer Whales

The BBC reports on a lawsuit by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals against Sea World.  The case argues that killer whales have rights just as humans do and that keeping such whales in captivity violates the constitutional prohibition against slavery.

The lawsuit is pending in federal court in San Diego and purportedly was brought by five killer whales as the plaintiffs.  The court held a hearing yesterday to determine whether the lawsuit could proceed.  The BBC article above quotes the lawyer for the killer whales as saying:  “For the first time in our nation’s history, a federal court heard arguments as to whether living, breathing, feeling beings have rights and can be enslaved simply because they happen to not have been born human.  By any definition these orcas have been enslaved here.”

I was sorry to read these news articles, because the principal point of such lawsuits seems to be to attract media attention.  No rational person, or lawyer, could really contend that our constitutional protections were written to protect, or should be read to extend to, killer whales or any other animal.  But such provocative lawsuits allow advocacy organizations, for the price of a filing fee, to gain a platform from which to espouse their views and then hope that any resulting news coverage will encourage like-minded people who read such articles to contribute to the cause.

The news media would do us all a favor by ignoring this kind of legal grandstanding.  I suppose I should, too.

Latin Jazz Lameness

In April, the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences voted to reduce the number of categories for which “Grammys” are rewarded, from 109 to 78.  One of the categories that will be eliminated is “Latin Jazz.”  The artists who formerly competed in that genre-specific category will now have to compete in a more general category, like “Best Instrumental Jazz Album.”

This being modern America, how would you expect “Latin jazz” artists to react?  Would they all respond graciously, suck it up, and simply resolve to compete in the more general category?  Nah!  At least four of the “Latin jazz” artists have filed a lawsuit in New York state court, arguing that the decision harms them, devalues their music category, and makes it harder for them to gain recognition.  The lawsuit claims that the careers of the artists will be hurt and that they should have been given a chance to offer input on how the changes to award categories would affect them.

What a bunch of whiners!  Don’t they realize that nobody pays attention to awards like the Grammys precisely because there are so many ridiculously narrow categories?  Perhaps the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences should just nominate every “Latin jazz” artist, give them all a “participation trophy,” and send them home to their Mommies.

Veggie Wraps, Olive Pits, and Dumb Decisions

Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich has settled his dental injuries lawsuit.  Kucinich became the butt of jokes here and elsewhere for his decision to file a lawsuit seeking $150,000 for injuries allegedly caused by biting into a veggie wrap that included an olive pit.  He apparently concluded, wisely, that pursuing the lawsuit would only expose him to still more derision — and if there is one thing a politician just can’t stand, it is being the subject of ridicule.

Dennis Kucinich and his upper bridgework

Before Representative Kucinich could go quietly into the night, however, he had to explain why he decided to file his ill-advised lawsuit in the first place.  This was not a good decision.  Kucinich’s explanation, available on his campaign website, reminds me of the lengthy, overly detailed description you might get if you ask an elderly relative how they are feeling.  And you can imagine your side of the conversation, too.  “So your tooth actually split and you didn’t know it?”  “Yes, I can imagine that would hurt like crazy — it certainly was brave for you to go on working despite the excruciating pain.”  “I’m sure you were concerned that the anchor of your upper bridgework was affected.”  By the time you heard the part about the antibiotics causing an intestinal obstruction you would be surreptitiously checking your watch and looking for a way to hit the road.  Kucinich gives more detailed information about the health consequences of his chance encounter with the olive pit than President Reagan provided about surviving an assassination attempt.

Kucinich’s experience should teach every politician a lesson.  If you are smart, you won’t sue under any circumstances — and if you find yourself talking about your intestinal obstructions, you probably should shut up, already.

Veggie Wraps, Olive Pits, And Congressional Lawsuits

Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich is suing a House of Representatives cafeteria for $150,000 because it allegedly sold him a vegetarian wrap sandwich that contained an olive pit.  Kucinich asserts that biting into the sandwich caused him “permanent dental and oral injuries requiring multiple surgical and dental procedures.”  The $150,000 figure includes sums for Kucinich’s pain, suffering, and loss of enjoyment.

The news about this lawsuit gives the reader a lot to chew on.  First, Kucinich must have a pretty expensive dentist and pretty extensive dental issues if the teeth-olive pit encounter could cause $150,000 worth of damage.  The hungry Congressman must have really been looking forward to that hearty veggie wrap and chomped down into the sandwich with reckless abandon!  Of course, for Members of Congress a fully functioning mouth is a crucial part of the job, so it’s not surprising they would use only the most expensive mouth technicians.  Second, it says something about Rep. Kucinich’s power — or lack of same — that he couldn’t even get the House of Representatives own cafeteria to pay off his dental bills short of litigation.  You would think that the cafeteria would want to keep famished Members of Congress and their staffs coming in for those grim vegetarian meals and would be willing to toss a few thousand bucks Kucinich’s way in order to avoid any problems.

And third, isn’t there something apt about a Member of Congress filing a $150,000 lawsuit for a food-related incident?  We can only assume that the standard, scrupulously accurate congressional accounting and budgeting techniques were used to develop that damages figure.