Your rights to give the finger, picket funerals and more 

LEAD STORY: Our Expanding "Rights": 1) In April, a high official of the European Union called for member-nations to subsidize "vacations" for seniors, the disabled and those too poor to afford one. Said Commissioner (for enterprise and industry) Antonio Tajani, "Traveling for tourism today is a right." 2) In April, the town of Olathe, Kan., became the second city in two years to settle lawsuits filed by citizens who were arrested for flashing their middle fingers at police officers, thus appearing to acknowledge that flipping the bird contemptuously at a cop is expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment. (Philadelphia paid out $50,000; Olathe, one-sixteenth the size, paid out $5,000.)

Can't Possibly Be True: The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., famously pickets targets around the country with explicit anti-homosexuality signs and recently chose as venues the funerals of deceased U.S. soldiers and Marines (calling such deaths God's punishment for America's acceptance of gays and lesbians). One grieving Marine family in York, Pa., filed a lawsuit accusing Westboro of "intentional infliction of emotional distress" by picketing their son's 2006 funeral, but a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in March that such protests are protected by the First Amendment. Piling on, the Court added that the grieving family must also pay Westboro $16,510 to cover its costs in having to defend the lawsuit.

Michelle Taylor, 34, was sentenced in Elko, Nev., in April to life in prison, solely for the crime of forcing a 13-year-old boy to touch her breasts, twice. The sentence was mandatory under a certain state law, but, said her lawyer, "She is getting a greater penalty ... than if she killed [the boy]." (She could be eligible for parole after 10 years.)

Inexplicable: Baltimore County, Md., Judge Darrell Russell Jr., presiding over a March domestic violence case in which the woman obviously had changed her mind about blaming the boyfriend, performed the couple's marriage ceremony in his chambers after temporarily halting the boyfriend's trial. Earlier, Judge Russell had informed the woman that she could not refuse to testify based on "marital privilege" because she and the boyfriend were not married. Consequently, as the trial started, she asked the judge to marry them. After the ceremony, she was then granted the "marital privilege," and the judge dismissed the charge for lack of evidence. (Russell has now been reassigned to less important cases.)

When Joseph Velardo, 28, was arrested in Port St. Lucie, Fla., in April after shoplifting items from a Staples store, he for some reason expressed relief that the charges would prevent him from being accepted by law schools. He explained that, since the value of the goods was over the $300 line that separates a mere misdemeanor from a 3rd-degree felony, law schools, thankfully, could no longer accept him. While officers were busy being puzzled about all that, the Staples manager told the police that the actual value of Velardo's take was $276.88.

Justin Massler, 27, charged with criminal stalking of 28-year-old businesswoman-heiress Ivanka Trump, was released on bail in New York City in April but explained to a New York Daily News reporter that he intended to alter his approach. Instead of imposing himself on Trump, he said he would "become like a big-time millionaire, real estate mogul, so that she's the one who contacts me."

Unclear on the Concept: At press time, the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal is considering declaring veteran comedian Guy Earle guilty of discrimination against two uncloseted lesbians who were heckling him in a night club. According to Earle, the women were loud, rude to the waitress and contemptuous of Earle, and thus opened the door to combat-type comedy of insult-exchange, except that some of his insults referred to the women's sexual orientation and frisky behavior at the table. Earle said his job requires him to be "offensive" and that the traditional verbal jousts between comedians and hecklers are not the same as illegal "hate speech."

More Fuzzy Thinking: 1) Schools' conventional "zero tolerance" policies prohibiting guns or weapons on campus not only apply (as they have recently) to drawings of guns and to a 2-inch-long toy charm in the shape of a gun, but, at an Ionia, Mich., school, to making the familiar, thumb-up hand representation of a gun, for which Mason Jammer, 6, was suspended in March. 2) Carly Houston, 29, was arrested in Naperville, Ill., in March after a rowdy early morning dispute with a taxi driver, and, given her customary "one phone call" to ask a friend to post bond for her, she chose instead to call 9-1-1 and report that she was "trapped inside a detention facility" (thus causing police to add "abuse of 9-1-1" to the charges).

Erlyndon Joseph Lo, 27 and a graduate of Southern Methodist University law school, was arrested in April after threats against a Dallas women's clinic that performs abortions. Police were tipped the day before when Lo appeared at the federal courthouse in Plano, Texas, and sought a formal judicial ruling that would protect him from harm, even if he were to use deadly force "to defend the innocent life of another human being."

Latest Protests: 1) In April, outdoing the recent partisan spats in the U.S. Congress, several dozen members of the Ukrainian parliament squared off over a cooperation-with-Russia bill that eventually involved headlocks, punching, a smoke bomb, glue (in the voting machines) and cartons of eggs tossed at the speaker's platform. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev called it the chamber's "traditional elegance." 2) Sweden's Metro newspaper reported in March that a 21-year-old inmate at Kirseberg prison in Malmo faces discipline for continuing his protests against jail conditions by aiming his gas-passing directly at guards.

Recurring Themes: Federal agents in April uncovered an elaborate bestiality ring (involving horses) in Washington state. Facility operator Douglas Spink is suspected of using the site to make pornographic videos for perverts, and a visitor from England was arrested as a suspected paying customer. This farm is near Bellingham, Wash., and the operation is completely separate from the 2005 raid on a similar facility near Enumclaw, Wash., about 110 miles away, in which one man died of a perforated colon following penetrative sex by a horse. The state had no specific anti-bestiality law in 2005, but one was enacted after the Enumclaw episode.

Readers' Choice: 1) Albert Bailey, 27, and a 16-year-old buddy were charged with robbery of a People's United Bank in Fairfield, Conn., in March, after they made it much too easy for police by calling the bank beforehand and demanding that money be set aside for them to pick up at a certain time. Police were waiting in the parking lot. 2) Megan Barnes, 37, was arrested in March after being spotted driving erratically in Cudjoe Key, near Key West, Fla. After several implausible explanations, Barnes admitted she had a razor and was giving herself a "bikini shave" as she drove. Several traffic charges were filed against her.

A News of the Weird Classic (June 1997): Robert Jordan filed a lawsuit in May 1997 against the New London, Conn., police department for illegal discrimination, claiming he was rejected as an officer solely because he scored too high on an intelligence test. The department admitted the discrimination, offering the defense that a person of such intelligence would quickly get bored with police work. U.S. District Judge Peter Dorsey agreed with the department and dismissed the lawsuit.

© 2010 CHUCK SHEPHERD

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