Wednesday, May 9, 2007

A Simple Rule

Two stories on the News Journal web site this morning crystallized a thought that's been taking shape in my mind for a while now: Don't be a Jackass.

In the first story, a group of University of Delaware students are in some trouble for dressing up in costumes for a Cinco de Mayo party that seem to have been inspired by the worst possible racist stereotypes of Latinos. Photographs ended up, as they tend to do, on-line. Local Latino groups were not amused.

To their credit, the students appear to realize that they were being jerks, and have apologized.

The second story is that of attorney Richard Abbott, who has been reprimanded by the Delaware Supreme Court for "undignified or discourteous conduct." He submitted a brief in one of his many lawsuits comparing a board of appointed citizens to a group of monkeys:
"A citizen board does not mean that its members are given license to ignore the legal standards which govern their decisions. Otherwise the county would be permitted to appoint a group of monkeys . . . and simply allow the [county] attorney to interpret the grunts and groans of the ape members." (This quote from Mr. Abbott's brief is from the excellent Delaware Grapevine coverage of this story)
Attorney Abbott is loudly complaining the reprimand is a product of political correctness and violates his free speech rights. He says he broke no laws.

That's true, but he was being a jerk and I think that the court is within its rights to reprimand a member of the bar for being a jerk.

My new golden rule comes from a novel I read recently. I read widely and shallowly, for sheer pleasure, and so can't recall what the novel was, nor who the author. But I do remember that the novel was set in a small town that a sheriff had successfully policed for decades by holding everyone to one simple rule: Don't be a Jackass.

We all have free speech rights. But we also have a responsibility to not be jerks about it. We're not five-year olds, though we often sound like it.

There are, as I write this, about 100 reader comments on the UD/Cinco de Mayo story on the News Journal web site. I sampled a few earlier in the day. Based on the comments left on the News Journal web site -- on this story and on others I've read lately -- the readers of that paper, at least on-line, are mean, racist, xenophobic, and largely anonymous.

And, being anonymous, they feel free to violate that first principle of civilized society: Don't be a Jackass.

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