Urban Dictionary Finds Place in Official Court Opinions

yolo-final

What once was restricted to Wikipedia, the scholarly source, has now extended to a research tool with potentially less integrity. In a recent piece, the New York Times reports on the growing use of urbandictionary.com as a dictionary of slang and colloquialisms legitimate enough for reference in official court opinions. As official, print dictionaries like Websters and the OED lag behind the parlance of our times, Urban Dictionary maintains an up to date, peer-reviewed list of common words.

Uses of Urban Dictionary, started in 1999 by founder Aaron Peckham from his college dorm, include last month’s Wisconsin opinion where the court sought to determine what was meant by two suspected robbers who referred to themselves as the “jack boys.” A court in Tennessee sought to define what a manager accused of sexual harassment by an employee meant when using the phrase “to nut.”

Prior to the inception of Urban Dictionary, courts would hire linguists to conduct surveys of the population to determine what was meant by a slang term, not found in any traditional dictionary. Now, anyone can provide a definition for a word, whether original or not, which must be approved by five other site users before appearing on the site.

While Rutgers law professor Greg Lastowka anticipates that the use of Urban Dictionary will become more prevalent, Peckham points to the inherent problem with using his site as a traditional dictionary:

[P]rivate analyses the site has conducted show that “funny” is the No. 1 reason people give for voting for posts.

Whether courts will take into account the demographics of the users of the site or that anyone and four of their friends can skew results remains to be seen. YOLO.

Via NYTimes.

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Stream of Slurs, Threats Not Protected Under Constitution

Complainer-Yelling-Phone-into-Man-Person

The SF Chronicle reported this weekend on a decision by the Fourth District Court of Appeal in San Diego affirming that loud, angry, aggressive, and disruptive language is not constitutionally protected speech.

The case, In re Curtis S. (2013) Cal. Super. Ct. No. JCM230237, came on appeal after a conviction in juvenile court of three counts:  1) petty theft (Pen. Code,  § 484); 2) assault (§ 240); and 3) disturbing another person by loud and unreasonable noise (§ 415, subd. (2)). Testimony revealed that Curtis S., a minor, stole a cell phone from another student and was pursued by a good Samaritan who stopped her car in front of Curtis S., preventing him from getting away. He threw the phone into a construction site and then began yelling obscenities and threatening language at the woman. When she attempted to grab his arm to detain him, he swung at her with a closed fist. According to testimony, Curtis S. called someone on his own cell phone during the altercation and said, “you better get this lady, because I’m about to.” Police arrived and arrested Curtis S. for the theft and for threatening the woman.

On appeal, Curtis S. argued that the purpose of his speech was to communicate and that such speech was protected by the First Amendment. Section 415, subdivision (2) makes it a crime for any person to “maliciously and willfully disturb[] another person by loud and unreasonable noise.” The appellate court relying on In re Brown (1973) 9 Cal.3d 612, 621, found that creating a disturbance by making loud noises, shouting obscenities, and making threats verbally is not protected speech.

Further, the Supreme Court has recognized, “the protections afforded by the First Amendment, however, are not absolute, and . . . the government may regulate certain categories of expression consistent with the Constitution.”  (Virginia v. Black (2003) 538 U.S. 343, 358.)  Words may be restricted under the First Amendment where they are ” ‘ “of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.” ‘ ”  (Id. at pp. 358-359, citing R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul (1992) 505 U.S. 377, 382-383.)

In California, when is speech not protected? When it communicates nothing!

“The loud shouting of obscenities and threats was disruptive, rather than communicative in nature.”

Via SF Chronicle.

Read the opinion.

Appellate Court Affirms: Sidewalk a Deadly Weapon

“[W]hether the pitcher hits the stone or the stone hits the pitcher, it will be bad for the pitcher.” Cervantes, Don Quixote

The Second Appellate District upheld the conviction of J.L., a 14-year-old boy charged with assault with a deadly weapon after he stomped on another boy laying on the sidewalk. J.L. appealed his trial court conviction on the grounds that just as hands and feet cannot be deadly weapons (the California Supreme Court has said a deadly weapon must be extrinsic of the body), because he did not “use” the sidewalk to assault his victim, the court could not convict him of assault with a deadly weapon.

“Not so!” affirmed the Appellate court. As in People v. Russell, where the Defendant was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon when he pushed his victim in front of a moving car, a defendant need not wield the deadly weapon in order to use it. The key is that the assailant takes advantage of a stationary object’s intrinsic qualities in way to cause a victim great bodily harm.

Via FindLaw.

Read the opinion.

Radiolab: Mutants — They’re Just Like US!

Radiolab did a fantastic story on the 2003 decision which “legally” settled the debate as to whether mutants are humans, featured here previously. Kudos to Abumrad and Krulwich for giving this story the context of the meddling lawyers who started this whole fracas and Brian Singer, director of X-Men, who elucidates on the birth of the X-Men franchise during the Civil Rights Movement.

Via WNYC.

Affordable Care Act Winning 3-2

On Tuesday another Federal District judge upheld the Affordable Care Act of 2010 against charges that Congress acted outside its commerce clause powers. This brings the five-ruling total to three rulings in favor of the laws constitutionality and two rulings against.

In other news, the Justice Department has effectively extended federal benefits to same-sex couples, after President Obama declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.

From the NY Times.

Read Judge Kessler’s 02/22/11 opinion upholding Obamacare (Congress acting within commerce clause powers).