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The right to annoy can carry hefty price

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© St. Petersburg Times, published December 22, 2000

In Miami in the late 1950s they were called "slam books," and, a quick check with my colleagues tells me, they were around for a long time and in a lot of places.

They were brightly colored binders full of notebook paper with each page denoting things and people you liked or didn't like. Boys or girls you thought were "dreamy" (Hey, it's not my fault: They were kinder and gentler times) or "drips."

They reeked of adolescent conspiracy, insensitivity and irresponsibility. They were great if you were popular . . . not so great if you were the one being "slammed."

Still, they were relatively harmless compared with similar genres today, and, rather than getting you expelled or into a dialogue with cops, they were more likely to get you into embarrassing positions when teachers with a creative sense of discipline made you read aloud from them in front of the class.

I, for one, resolved after a particularly bad morning to never again refer to the journalism teacher as a "dried-up old piece of white turkey meat," and have carried that life lesson over to the present in that I never refer to an editor that way -- in writing.

But some harsh realities have made life less fun of late, and it may well be that some First Amendment rights are getting trampled along the way.

I caught a lot of flak, some of it justified, a year ago when I agreed with administrators who suspended a kid who wrote what he said was a fiction piece about administrators and class presidents and religious students all "being put to sleep tomorrow, by me."

That incident occurred in the very recent wake of the shootings at Columbine High School, and, although it causes me pain, I still agree.

Now two girls at a Pasco high school have been caught with what sounds a lot like a "slam book" -- maybe a little updated in intensity and verbiage -- and suspended.

And there may be trouble in the air for some kids who put together a parody Web site making fun of Springstead High School. It contained doctored photos depicting school officials engaged in sex acts and describing teachers as pedophiles and drunks.

Some folks, undoubtedly those so depicted among them, are extremely unhappy about the site. Others defend it as expression protected by the First Amendment.

Someone took things up another notch when officials say an offer was made to "sell" the site to school administrators for $10,000.

Whether that was a business offer or extortion will be, in the end, something for law enforcement officials and maybe a jury to decide. But if that behavior isn't over the line, it's certainly within John McEnroe-bitching distance of it.

Slam books were just low-tech Web site bulletin boards in their time, and nobody cared about student rights. The books were confiscated and destroyed by government agents -- teachers -- and anyone who didn't like it could go fly a kite.

Some contend that each of the local cases involve free speech and expression and that we send a bad message to children by limiting their access to that freedom.

One of the lessons on freedom that never gets proper emphasis, however, is that even constitutionally protected acts still can have consequences.

And that may be the ultimate lesson. Juries spend a lot of time every year or so figuring out the difference between parody and plagiarism, satire and libel, joke and criminal conduct.

I write things that people don't like on a regular basis. In return I am praised, reviled, exalted and threatened.

The final message to the kids in these cases may be that you have the right to say and write things as obnoxious and offensive as you choose, and, at some point down the road, a school administrator or a jury may decide that your exercise of that right trampled on someone else's right to be free from civil or criminal wrongdoing.

And, in the end, whether you or they prevail may have as much to do with how good your lawyer is, how much clout you have or how fast you can run as it does whether you were right or wrong.

Welcome to adulthood.

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