F-Bombed

Colorado is ground zero in the war of the word.

Today, Castle Rock. Tomorrow, the world. Watch out, Michael Powell.

This past June, Daniel Lewis, a twenty-year-old singer with the band Dysarranged, grabbed a mike and uttered these timeless words: "I want to dedicate this song to the Castle Rock police. I hate you fucking pigs."

The pigs never got to hear Lewis's lullabye: They unplugged the band and arrested Lewis, who was charged with disturbing the peace -- "disturbing the almighty peace," as Bruce Springsteen says -- under a town ordinance that prohibits "loud or unusual noises, or tumultuous or offensive language."

Never mind that few respectable rock-and-roll musicians have ever played a concert without using "fuck" in one of its many useful forms. Certainly, no credible rock-and-roll critic has ever reviewed a concert without using "fucking" as an adjective. In October, the Federal Communications Commission determined that Bono's use of the word "fucking" on live TV -- specifically, his exclamation on last year's Golden Globes that "this is really, really fucking brilliant" -- did not violate FCC indecency or obscenity rules, since Bono used the word as an adjective, not as a reference to "sexual or excretory activity or organs." (FCC chairman Powell is now trying to get that decision overturned.) Even Senator John Kerry used "fuck" in an interview with Rolling Stone last month, which could have made all the difference at the Iowa caucuses Monday night. Yes, people in the Midwest say "fuck." It's just so fucking handy.

And certainly never mind that Lewis said it at the dedication of a skate park -- not a Gymboree.

Castle Rock still went after Lewis with everything it had, charging him criminally. And attorney Dan Recht fired back with everything he had, including this: "The state has the power to protect its citizenry from actual harm and thus has the power to outlaw one yelling 'fire!' in a crowded theater. However, yelling 'fuck!' in a crowded theater does not create a clear and present danger to anyone and thus cannot be outlawed. Although they are both four-letter words that start with F, the distinction is constitutionally significant."

But Recht wasn't the first lawyer to drop that F-bomb. That honor goes to public defender Eric Vanatta, who represented a junior-high student charged with "interference with staff, faculty or students of educational institutions," a Class 3 misdemeanor, after the boy was accused of smoking in the bathroom and responded by calling his principal "fucker, a fag, and a fucking fag." On July 1, Vanatta filed a motion in Larimer County District Court to dismiss the charges based on "the constitutionality of fuck, fucker and fucking fag."

"In order to provide a context for the alleged crime," Vanatta wrote, "we must first examine the history of Fuck and its evolution in society." And so he did, in a seven-page document that took "fuck" from its first recorded use, in 1500 (in the English-Latin poem Flen Flyss), to its accepted use in movies and music -- and beyond. "A search of internet web sites suggests Fuck is a more commonly used word than mom, baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet," he said, citing a google search on June 25, 2003, that resulted in these hits:

Fuck: 24,900,000 hits (approximate)

Fucking: 24,700,000

Baseball: 13,600,000

Mom: 9,040,000

Chevrolet: 4,090,000

First Amendment: 933,000

Fucker: 735,000

Unconstitutional: 691,000

Hot dogs: 607,000

Freedom of speech: 542,000

Apple pie: 308,000

Sticks and stones may break my bones: 7,360

"Fuck possesses incredible versatility," Vanatta noted. "It can be a noun (you fuck), a verb (everything Billy touches, he fucks up), an adjective (I'm really fucking broke), an adverb (I've been fucking drinking too much), an exclamation (holy fuck, Batman) or question (what the fuck?). This versatility...may explain why Fuck can be used in almost any sentence at any time no matter what the circumstances and why the word has become almost commonplace in United States culture and society.

"The question presented by the case at bar is not whether Fuck is a desirable or attractive word, or whether a juvenile should be calling his principal a fucker or a fucking fag. Rather, the question is one of constitutionality and whether the State can criminalize the speech in question by application of the statute at issue. The prosecution is attempting to hold a juvenile criminally responsible for the age-old tradition of name-calling. Although Mr. X could have selected a more desirable choice in prose, such as 'I respectfully dissent' or 'I am disappointed with your attitude, sir, and politely ask you to cease and desist,' the use of the words fucker and fucking nonetheless do not amount to criminal conduct in this particular context."

Besides, they're protected, if ugly, speech.

Vanatta concludes: "Fuck is certainly a controversial word that may be appropriate in certain venues and locales (Florida Elections Commission, speed eating contests, public defender offices) and may be inappropriate in others (weddings, Chuck-E-Cheese pizza parlors, district attorney offices). Some people may believe it is always inappropriate. But in all but a very few circumstances, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits our government from making that determination. This case falls outside of those very limited circumstances and, as such, no conviction can result from Mr. X's alleged statements."

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