This column, which originally ran in the Record on Oct. 11, 2011, won second place for general column in a non-daily newspaper in the Press Club of Southeast Texas Excellence in the Media Awards on June 8.
Virginia Tice seems like your average, sweet little 65-year-old lady in Bonneau, S.C.-hardly the sort of person who would spark a First Amendment controversy. But that's exactly what's happened after she pulled her pickup truck into a gas station on July 5 and got a $445 ticket from a local policeman.
You see, Ms. Tice's truck is decorated with a novelty item called "Bulls Balls," a set of big, red fake testicles hanging from the truck's trailer hitch. Like a similar product called "Truck Nutz," they're sold online as an expression of the truck's (and by extension, the driver's) machismo.
They're not popular with everyone; state legislatures in Virginia, Maryland and Florida have proposed banning the fake testicles, and even the Dallas Morning News' "Problem Solver" editor has fielded questions from north Texas drivers about the novelty items.
The ticket issued to Ms. Tice is for allegedly violating South Carolina's obscene bumper sticker law, which provides that "A sticker, decal, emblem, or device is indecent when taken as a whole, it describes, in a patently offensive way, as determined by contemporary community standards, sexual acts, excretory functions, or parts of the human body."
Bonneau's police chief, Franco Fuda, is eager for a jury trial to determine the issue and stands by his department's ticket-writing policies. Ms. Tice doesn't want to pay the hefty fine (no jail time is involved), and her lawyer Scott Bischoff states "We'll let a jury decide whether this is really criminal behavior. I don't want to take away from the importance of free speech, but it's really comical."
I tend to agree. I'm no fan of big government telling someone how they can and can't decorate their vehicle.
If there's no safety issue involved, I could care less if you have a bumper sticker, flag or emblem professing allegiance to a school or sports team, expressing your political or religious views or depicting a cartoon character urinating on the logo of a rival car maker.
South Carolina's law has been successfully challenged before on free speech grounds, and I expect this outcome to be no different. It takes (pardon the expression) real cojones to go up against the First Amendment; besides, the law as it is written shouldn't even apply. It outlaws obscene depictions of human body parts, and Ms. Tice's clearly pays homage to something belonging on a bull.
Lately, everybody seems to think their case is more important and earth-shattering than it really is. Sometimes, it's up to judges to remind them that it's not.
For example, in July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit handed down an opinion in an intellectual property dispute between Georgia-Pacific Consumer Products (makers of Quilted Northern toilet paper) and Kimberly-Clark Corp. (makers of the competing Cottonelle brand of toilet paper).
At issue was whether Kimberly-Clark's brands of tissue infringed on Georgia-Pacific's quilted design.
In his ruling, Justice Evans voiced some surprise at the extent of the legal combat over a product that is such a mundane part of life:
"We are told that during the 'expedited' discovery period leading up to the district court decision we are called upon to review, some 675,000 pages of documents were produced and more than a dozen witnesses were deposed. That's quite a record considering, again, that this case is about toilet paper."
Justice Evans went on to have some more fun with the subject matter of the lawsuit, noting that although the trial court judge had "dutifully plied her opinion," the appellate court must "now wipe the slate clean and address Georgia-Pacific's claim."
Nicely done, Justice Evans-you were on a roll, and no doubt the winning paper company was flush with success. ( I'm sad to report that shortly after this opinion was published, the venerable and witty jurist passed away).
In the same month, our own Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals unloaded with a "benchslap" against a would-be cheerleader, her mother and their attorneys who had taken a situation out of the movie "Mean Girls" and made a federal case out of it.
In Sanches v. Carrollton-Farmers Branch I.S.D., the justices expressed little interest with the teen soap opera taking place at Creekview High School:
"Reduced to its essentials, this is nothing more than a dispute, fueled by a disgruntled cheerleader mom, over whether her daughter should have made the squad. It is a petty squabble, masquerading as a civil rights matter, that has no place in federal court or any other court. We find no error and affirm."
The court also had some choice words for Sanches' attorneys, calling their brief "unprofessional," "so poorly written that it is difficult to decipher what the attorneys mean," and filled with typos and "miscues [that] are so egregious and obvious that an average fourth grader would have avoided most of them." Ouch!
And then there are those lawsuits that just make no sense to me, and which give the legal profession a bad name.
For example, recently a product liability lawsuit was filed in federal court in the Eastern District of Texas (Texarkana Division). The parents of a Texas high school cheerleader are suing because their daughter was seriously burned while attending a campfire with some high school friends. A boy attempted to reignite the campfire by pouring gasoline.
Did they sue the boy? No. They sued Blitz U.S.A., the manufacturer of the gas can, saying that there must be a safer alternative design that could have prevented such an incident, and that Blitz should have warned about the possibility of a fire like this occurring.
Seriously? Some idiot pours gasoline on a fire, causing out of control flames, and it's the fault of how the gasoline can was made? You've got to be kidding me. It's gasoline, for crying out loud. Unless you're appearing in a "Jackass" movie, you shouldn't be pouring it on a fire. Why not sue singer David Bowie? After all, he once did a song called "Putting Out Fire With Gasoline;" maybe he's to blame.
If that isn't enough proof that the concept of personal responsibility is lost on some people, then consider this lawsuit recently filed in New York. Diane Schuler killed herself and seven other people in a wrong-way collision on the Taconic State Parkway when she crashed her minivan into an SUV occupied by three men; toxicology reports indicated that Diane Schuler was drunk and high when the accident happened. Among the occupants in her car who were killed were three of her young nieces, ages 5, 7 and 8 respectively.
So who would you expect to be sued? Shockingly enough, Diane Schuler's husband, Daniel, decided to sue, saying the accident couldn't have been the fault of an inebriated, stoned wife driving the wrong way-that would be too easy an explanation. Instead, he's sued the state of New York itself, claiming that the highway was poorly designed and that it lacked proper signs (not counting all those "Wrong Way" signs, of course).
He also filed a separate lawsuit against his own brother-in-law, the grieving father of the three little girls who were killed. I've heard of "the best defense is a good offense," but suing your brother-in-law after your own wife kills all three of his kids seems like a monumentally stupid, offensive idea to me.
And you wonder why the legal profession gets a bad name?