SUMMER OF SELF-HELP: ORNERY CITIZENS THWART THE COURT

By DAHLIA LITHWICK

A Brief Guide To Civil Disobedience, Sheer Orneriness, and Other Ways To Undermine The Highest Court In the Land

As the nation finally begins to absorb and internalize the legal significance of 1999's Supreme Court "Term of the Century," it's become clear that last term's decisions have engendered more widespread national resistance than any other in history. Indeed, in this, the Summer of Self-Help, the citizenry have proven themselves more adept than ever at violating the spirit -- if not the actual law -- of the Court's most recent jurisprudence. Below, your intrepid reporter chronicles the tales of this summer's armchair Gandhis -- and lets you know where to go to get in on the mayhem.

Real World Resistance

In high schools across the South, students are fighting back against the Supreme Court's controversial ban on school-sponsored, student-led prayer before football games. Galvanized by Christian ministries and local radio show hosts, these kids are doing an end-run around the Court's prohibition on prayer before games, by offering up the Lord's Prayer "spontaneously" and in perfect unison.

Meanwhile, in Illinois and California, corporate and government entities are pushing back against the Court's ruling that permitted the Boy Scouts of America to exclude homosexuals. These groups are standing up for their convictions by withdrawing financial and other support from local scouting organizations, which may well lead to the demise of whole troops.

unequivocal orders has been a sweeping national shrug accompanied by a surly "Make me." While large-scale resistance to Supreme Court decisions is by no means unprecedented in this land -- after all, school desegregation still hasn't quite happened -- this broad local insurrection bespeaks a newer, tougher activist: An activist ready and willing to give a defiant finger to the long arm of the law.

A Few Daring Souls Go Farther

While you may have heard about the praying in Texas, or the Chicago suit against the Boy Scouts, you may be unaware of some other acts of not-so-passive resistance that have followed in the wake of the controversial 1999 term:

  1. After the Miranda rule was upheld in Dickerson v. United States, in part on the grounds that the warning had become "part of our national culture" (as evidenced by its frequent invocation on T.V. cop shows), the L.A.P.D. immediately sought to constitutionalize several other controversial NYPD Blue and Homicide policies. The Department now mandates that its female officers wear lycra t-shirts under all suits, and requires sizzling sexual tension between any opposite-sex officers teamed up for longer than seven minutes. Mark Fuhrman reportedly secretly edited the policy, without the knowledge of the rest of the department, so that it appeared to have been authored by O.J. Simpson.


  2. Following the Court's decision, in Hill v. Colorado, to uphold a Colorado ban on leafleting outside any "health care facility," abortion protesters in Boulder have taken to delivering their pro-life message in less directly confrontational ways. This summer, women seeking abortions have had to run a gauntlet of non-leafleting protests -- including local airplanes bearing the message "Abortion is Murder, Drink Coors," and "Choose Life, and Have Lunch at Hooters." A woman who declined to be named said that the planes made her "really stop and think twice" about her preference for foreign beers. Healthcare workers at clinics report that incidents of protester violence have decreased sharply, although Hooters management complains that they have lost record numbers of waitresses who have quit to "find God."


  3. Following the Court's holding in Mitchell v. Helms -- that public funding of computers and other equipment in religious schools does not violate the Establishment Clause -- Our Sisters of Sorrow High School in Jacksonville, Florida spent the summer building a new "computer lab," using Title 2 funds. The "lab" contains a new altar, cherry wood pews and a life-sized, automated crèche of the Nativity. The sisters urge that the room is indeed a computer lab because a Palm Pilot ™ is kept in the chapel for use by students, who have used it only to download the popular "What Would Jesus Do?" program, which tells users what Jesus would have done in any situation they might input.


  4. Forced to retaliate after the Court upheld, in Erie v. Pap's A.M., a city ordinance requiring nude dancers to wear "pasties" in spite of their claim that bare breasts represent "expressive speech," Busty La Rue, a New Jersey exotic dancer, began to work "nipple painting" into her nightly show. So far, La Rue has used only red, white and blue paint. And, occasionally, an Etch-a-Sketch. La Rue's claim -- that nipples do produce expressive speech -- will be tested in the New Jersey district court this fall, where an injunction is being sought by the state to force La Rue to paint with her fingers, like everyone else.


  5. Finally, after the Court decided that the FDA may not regulate tobacco as a drug, in FDA v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., the FDA has retaliated by renouncing its former jurisdiction over several other foods and drugs, including Cheez Whiz ("Have the ATF regulate that crap") brussel sprouts ("Never considered them food in the first place") and the popular club drug ecstasy ("No, wait, we want to keep that one.").

Just Do It

You, personally, may not yet have taken it upon yourself to violate the law of the land through an act of zealotry or pique. But with a month to go before the 2000 term opens, it's worth your taking a moment to probe last term's rulings for some ruling with which you disagree. There has to be at least one.

May I suggest that you consider violating the grandparents' visitation ruling (Visit the grandkids until they beg for mercy and throw your Werther's Butterscotches right back at you!); or try withholding your student fees from liberal groups on campus ("I'll defend to the death your right to say it, but for now I am buying an extra baba ganoush"). Get out there and show that Court what you think of their rulings. They can't enforce them anyway! Remember the words of Abraham Lincoln: "to sin by silence, when they should protest, makes cowards of men."

Dahlia Lithwick, the Supreme Court correspondent for Slate, is also an editor at Writ.

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