Thursday, May 26, 2005

Civics 101: Lofy’s actions a lesson in First Amendment rights - LAKE GENEVA AND WILLIAMS BAY TIMES

Last year, Kerry Lofy picked up his date for the Badger High School junior prom at her house, complimented her on the beautiful dress she wore, and enjoyed dancing the night away both fast and close with her at the prom.

This year, Lofy again picked up his date, but this year, he was the one receiving the compliments on the beautiful dress. He also enjoyed dancing fast and close to his date.

It was an enjoyable evening – until he was arrested.

Lofy’s silly prank pales in comparison to the outrageous overreaction of adults to his actions.

When Lofy donned a black spaghetti strap dress and high-heeled shoes and accompanied a gay friend to the school’s prom May 7, then engaged in sexually risqu» dancing with another male student, he raised eyebrows and incited anger among the school’s administration and local police.

He was openly defiant of the “rules.” Sounds like a typical teenager, doesn’t it?

And for that open defiance – and questionable behavior at a school function – school officials administered what they believed to be an appropriate punishment; Lofy was suspended for three days and the star athlete was made to sit out of the Lakeshore Conference track and field meet.

Apparently, that wasn’t enough of a punishment, because the Lake Geneva Police Department issued Lofy a $249 disorderly conduct ticket for his busted moves on the dance floor.

When attorney Erik Guenther heard about the actions taken against Lofy by both the police department and the school district, he cried foul and took up arms in the fight for Lofy’s First Amendment rights.

He’s right on the mark.

No matter what tests have been thrown at this civil liberty, the first-ever amendment to the United States Constitution, which was ratified by Congress on Dec. 15, 1791 – and there have been some pretty big tests – this basic right has been faithfully and readily upheld by the United States Supreme Court.

In those 200 years – despite a vastly different society with a whole new set of standards – the freedom to express an opinion is still considered by the highest court in the land to be among the most important and basic of our civil liberties – even for school children.

In Street v. New York, the high court upheld a citizen’s right to desecrate the American flag. In Terminiello v. Chicago, the court said anti-Semitic rantings were protected speech. In R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, the high court even said burning a cross on the property of a black family by a white supremacist group was also protected expression under the First Amendment.

In order to be truly free, so says the Supreme Court, a society must bear the cost of certain expressions – even expressions that embarrass the sensibilities of the majority, that degrade the dignity of an entire race, or that make parents, school administration and perhaps teens uncomfortable in terms of sexual preference.

No, Kerry Lofy didn’t do anything so insidious as burn a cross, or spew racist, bigoted viewpoints at his prom. He just wanted to help out a friend who didn’t have a date to the prom. And he wanted to have fun with it. And he certainly did not mean to harm anyone with his dress or his dancing – no matter how over the top he was.

Even if he did, the First Amendment affords his right to do so. Which means the disorderly conduct ticket is unjustified and a violation of his First Amendment rights.

It also means the Badger High School administration strayed dangerously far from fundamental civics lessons, putting a clamp down on an open-minded and tolerant educational environment crucial to a well-balanced society.

When did offensive behavior become a crime? What offends some may not offend others. Such subjective differences have no place in a free society that blows its own horn of acceptance and tolerance. And, again, consistently, the Supreme Court has upheld this belief.

Kerry Lofy pleaded not guilty to the disorderly conduct ticket last week. Lake Geneva City Attorney Mike Rielly must now decide if the city will pursue the charges against Lofy, or dismiss them.

It should be an easy decision for Mr. Rielly, who is essentially acting as the city’s conscience.

Agree with Kerry Lofy or don’t. Approve of what he did or don’t. But don’t let your opinion interfere with everyone’s right to freedom of expression.

Or someday, it could be you who has something to say, and no safe place to say it.

Carrie Dampier


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