Jewish World Review Nov. 4, 2009 / 17 Mar-Cheshvan 5770
Lack of civility costly in court
By Marybeth Hicks
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | It's probably just a matter of time until burglary suspect Kane Kellett files a lawsuit claiming he was denied his right to free speech.
What with the perverse, modern-day interpretations of our constitutional guarantee of expression, one can only imagine the damages he will try to collect for being held in contempt of court simply because he flipped off the judge.
For now, Mr. Kellett sits in a McHenry County, Ill., jail, where one might hope he is learning a hard - if not overdue - lesson on the importance of civility. Or not.
Mr. Kellett was cited for contempt over the weekend during his preliminary hearing for a burglary charge. Prosecutors say he broke into the home of an acquaintance and tried to bash his friend over the head with a flashlight.
The guy sounds like a gem so far, which is what makes the vulgar gesture thing such a surprise.
Judge G. Martin Zopp ignored one profanity on the part of the accused, who used profanity to amplify his answer when asked whether he had legal counsel. Apparently "no" was not sufficient to explain his lack of an attorney; therefore Mr. Kellett employed an all-purpose modifier.
But then, the defendant went too far. Asked to raise his right hand to be sworn, Mr. Kellett instead raised his middle finger. I suppose it's possible he misunderstood what it means to "swear in" a defendant, but more likely, he was "sticking it to the man."
Turns out "the man" was Assistant State's Attorney Patrick Kenneally, who asked Judge Zopp to find Mr. Kellett in direct criminal contempt for his rude and disrespectful action.
Obviously, Mr. Kellett is a punk, but that's not the point. Unfortunately, his action is only a symptom of the larger societal issue of rampant incivility and the all-too-common use of profanity and vulgarity in public.
It would be easy to make the media the scapegoat for this cultural trend, and in fact, television in particular has helped eliminate the idea of "polite company" in which one would avoid certain words or phrases. From "Family Guy" to "Cops," MTV to "Saturday Night Live," profanity is only tacitly "bleeped" out for the sake of propriety, and more often these days, it is not.
Then again, our public officials and pop-culture icons also promote the use of vulgarity in public. Members of Congress and the executive branch have now famously used the same riveting vocabulary word as this 24-year-old suspect, Ivy League pedigree notwithstanding.
Still, we might hope the hallowed halls of justice echo the civil tones of a civilized people, but that's sadly not the case. Thanks to our overly casual culture, it's typical for local jurisdictions to post guidelines on their Web sites with such basic requests as "shoes must be worn" and "no bare midriffs" in court. Perhaps McHenry County will now post guidelines on how to respectfully raise one's hand to be sworn in.
We ought not to need a laundry list of guidelines to tell folks how to behave civilly. From the U.S. Capitol to the school playground, the rules of civility already are well-known and need only be honored in order for American society to be lifted up.
Bravo to Mr. Kenneally and Judge Zopp for using Mr. Kellett's disgraceful behavior as an example of what they will not tolerate in court.
Now let's hope someone doesn't win this punk a chunky settlement on the grounds he was only expressing his opinion about being arrested on charges of ripping off a friend.
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JWR contributor Marybeth Hicks, a wife of more than 20 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. To comment, please click here.
© 2009, Marybeth Hicks