Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Poetic justice

In a sweet victory for civil liberties in the public schools (a concept under deep suspicion since the Supreme Court's Hazelwood opinion undermined Tinker v. Des Moines), the California Supreme Court has overturned the conviction of a 15-year-old high school student for writing a "dark" and "disturbing" poem.

The case attracted the attention of a who's who of writers, including Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee, Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon, Harlan Ellison, the poet George Garrett, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the PEN American Center, and others. They signed on to the ACLU's amicus brief, which must have been great fun to write.

“At the heart of this case is the First Amendment right of any young person to explore the whole range of his emotions and experiences, and write about disturbing subject matter without fear that he will be punished should his work be misinterpreted,” said Ann Brick, attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.

To illustrate that poetry and prose, which explore the darker side of humanity, is a recurring theme in literature that is entitled to the highest level of First Amendment protection, the brief cites William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Eminem’s recording of “Criminal.”

The brief also cited Horace, Henry Adams, James Wright, and Helen Vendler. William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity was an inspired choice. The crux of the ACLU's argument, which carried the day, is that poetry is too "inherently ambiguous" to constitute, on its own, a threat. Two cheers, or maybe three in this case, for strategic ambiguity.

UPDATE: You'll find the text of the poem, and more commentary, at this 9th Circuit criminal law blog.

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