Appeals Court Says Swearing in Text Messages Isn’t a Crime

(WIRED)   A 16-year-old California boy dumped by his high school girlfriend didn’t violate a state obscenity law by using four-letter words in anguished text messages to his ex, an appellate court ruled this week.

The boy, identified by his initials in the ruling, was convicted by a juvenile court judge in Chico, California, of sending threatening or obscene telephone communications, based on two profanity-laced text messages he sent the girl shortly after the breakup last year.

“Fuck u u stupid fuckin girl!,” read one of texts, in part.

One of the girl’s friends told police about the texts, leading to the boy’s arrest. He was held four days in juvenile hall.

When the teenager appealed, state Attorney General Edmund Brown argued that the conviction should stand. On Tuesday, the Third Appellate District Court overturned the conviction (.pdf), finding that the text messages’ language was not “offensive to prevailing notions of modesty or decency.”

“[T]he words … are generally eschewed in polite settings, which is why in court the parties and witnesses generally referred to the ‘F word’ or ‘B word’ or ‘C word,’” wrote Associate Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, for the unanimous three-judge panel.

“But each has acquired secondary meanings through modern usage,” the judge wrote. “In particular, the evidence was uncontradicted that these words are in common use at the high school, the venue in which the relationship existed, and in which [the defendant’s] pointed communications about his feelings were sent.”

The court also rejected the Attorney General’s contention that the teenager had illegally threatened the girl in one of the text messages. In that text, the boy pledged to “kill half the school ill load everyone with bullets and then shoot myself in the head right in front of u just to show u how much u pushed me.” The court noted that the message did not actually threaten any physical harm on the girl, who was specifically spared in the imagined scenario.

“god i waited to kiss u for a fuckin month its been two weeks ur kissing ppl [Sh.’s] friends try to cuddle with me and i push them off ur all i think about i do drugs now because of u because u r constantly hurting me i told u i cheating on u cause i didnt want to hide things from u i could have and i could have been happy but no,” the message continued.

The defendant has already served a sentence requiring him to write a 500-word essay on the Columbine shootings. Philip Heithecker, the teen’s trial attorney, says the boy’s family appealed the judgment on principle.

“Law enforcement is really taking an approach with kids where it’s zero tolerance for everything,” says Heithecker. “I didn’t think he committed any wrongdoing … I wouldn’t want my kid having a juvenile record.”

Shortly after sending the texts, the boy apologized to his ex-girlfriend, according to the opinion. The two are now friends.

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