“I know it when I see it,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote in 1964 when trying to describe his definition of obscenity in the 1964 decision in Jacobellis v. Ohio. I have thought about that quote plenty over the years. Admittedly, I am a vulgar man by the standards of most communities. This self-observation and the self-censoring that must accompany it to get through the day without offending people is the reason Justice Potter’s words are so important to me.
Those around me will decide if what I have said or written is obscene, and then they will react accordingly.
Brandi Levy was a 14-year-old cheerleader at her Pennsylvania school in 2017 when she was working on moving up to the varsity squad from the JV. For whatever reason, of which I admit an inquiring interest in understanding, she failed in her quest. Upon learning the disappointing news, she went to Snapchat and posted a photo of herself and a friend “flipping the bird” to the camera with the message that said “F*** school…F*** cheer…F*** everything.”
Now, I want to point out that the above description of Levy’s social media post comes from reporting by NPR.org. I don’t know what the standard is for writing about flashing one’s middle finger at another, but NPR can now be my guide. In “A Christmas Story,” Ralphie described “the queen mother of dirty words” just like NPR wrote them, while also taking some artistic freedom by substituting “fudge” in place of it.
In any case, the Pennsylvania school decided that the social media post in question was a violation of cheer team rules, was disruptive behavior, and suspended Levy from the team. Levy sued over it on the grounds that her social media post was protected speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and that the school had no right to punish her.
Levy won in this week’s SCOTUS ruling, though the court also ruled that schools could take action in similar circumstances if the behavior in question is determined to be disruptive. Which means, of course, the next case will be an argument over what is “disruptive.”
I try to empathize with those involved on both sides of this monumental, sarcasm intended, dispute. If these were the relevant facts for the 14-year-old version of me, I imagine my parents telling me, “tough S***.” I am certain we would not have gone to court over it. And I learned how to be a vulgar person the old fashioned way, just like Ralphie did, from my dad.
On one hand, I think it is “BS” that the public school took such an aggressive stance on a Snapchat post, made by a young student who was frustrated by a school competition’s outcome. On the other hand, who goes to court, including “the queen mother” of all courts, to argue over it? I also wonder how much the school and the school district spent defending its decision to suspend Levy from the cheer team.
“It’s a huge victory for students’ speech rights,” said David Cole, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Levy. Honestly, I yawn a little at that “victory,” even as a teacher at a public university. I worry more about accidental, disruptive and obscene speech coming from me than my students, but I have lived with that challenge my entire life.
Controversial speech that some would define as obscene, and therefore disruptive, just don’t concern this vulgar man. I am far more concerned about speech that is clearly disruptive to the community with intention. Speech like the old standard of screaming “fire!” in a crowded movie theater, or the new standard of politicians lying about the outcome of an election leading to an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. That’s the speech that challenges our freedom more than any inappropriate F-bomb.
Yes, I have a little personal experience with this. When I was a fourth grade student, in a small Baptist town in southwest Virginia, I uttered the word, “darn.” My teacher, Mrs. Miller, was aghast at my use of the word, grabbed me by the arm and yelled, “What did you say!?” I repeated the word, assuming she thought I said something else, and she reached for the paddle hanging on the wall a few feet away and swatted me three times for “cussing.”
I told my parents about it when I got home. It was a confession, not a complaint. My vulgar dad didn’t care about the cussing or the paddling. And then we sat down to dinner.