The Lateral View: The Blackboard Jungle


I will not talk in class. I will not talk in class. I will not talk in class. I will—shall—in fact stay after school and clean the blackboards and dust the erasers, and I will not talk in class. Ever again.

I'm a good child but the connection between talking in class (my crime) and tidying up the blackboards and erasers (my punishment) eludes me. Of course, what am I? A mere child.

Like my teacher, the United States doesn't quite know what to do about miscreants. We send Jim Bakker to jail for 45 years for bilking gullible seekers of heaven out of voluntary contributions. But we keep the average murderer in jail for only 12 years. We sentence Jonathan Pollard to life in prison for stealing relatively minor secrets and giving them to our ally Israel. But we routinely trade real spies to their paymasters. And we employ the RICO statute, designed to catch serious organized crime figures, to prosecute (and persecute) anti-abortion activists and minor peddlers of erotica.

My home state of Massachusetts has the nation's highest car theft rate, but lawmakers continue to treat car theft as a misdemeanor. "Unauthorized use," it's called. A first-time conviction for "unauthorized use" usually doesn't even bring time in prison.

America has neither a consistently draconian punishment system, as in Saudi Arabia, which decapitates first-time drug offenders and lops off the hands of pickpockets; nor a consistently lenient system, as in the Netherlands, where an adult can smoke marijuana or visit a prostitute. We're all over the place, with 50 different state codes and a federal code that overlaps, undercuts, elaborates upon, and, now and again, minimizes those state laws. We've no Confucius to codify our laws and make them resonate to logic.

But we do have one emerging trend: the application of thought-police tactics to certain kinds of crime. Namely, those with the flavor of ideological deviation from accepted norms. Various colleges, for example, have tossed free speech out the window and proscribed certain unpleasant thoughts, or, at least, oral or written expression of those thoughts. Specifically, thoughts that offend selected minorities.

And judges in the real world have caught the whiff of this censoriousness wafting through the air and laid punishments on their victims that smack less of jurisprudence than of the Grand Inquisitor. Not for us the slicing off of hands; let's hear it for an adult version of staying after school to wash the blackboards and dust the erasers.

Leona Helmsley, of whom "wicked witch"—or something rhyming with witch—became a common newspaper epithet, suffered a sentence of four years in federal prison and a whopping $7.1 million fine for tax fraud. But this wasn't quite enough for U.S. District Judge John Walker, Jr. He added 750 hours of community service at a home for drug-addicted children.

Rob Lowe, hunklet cutie of the cinema, foolishly fell asleep after taping his frolics with a couple of willing young women in a hotel room during the 1988 Democratic National Convention. The women stole the tape, duplicated it, showed it to friends, reaped the benefits of their self-exposure, and saw the young actor wiggle his way out of a possible jail sentence for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The convenient arrangement: Mr. Lowe agreed to perform 20 hours of community service, and the prosecutor agreed to drop the investigation. If memory serves, he was sent to tell high school students to just say no. To drugs, that is.

In October, Rhode Islander Stephen Germershausen, convicted of molesting three children, was given 35 years probation—with the added proviso that he had to take out a newspaper ad with his picture in it and a statement identifying himself as a child molester. His ad warns other molesters to "get professional help immediately or you may find your picture and your name in the paper and your life under the control of the state." Superior Court Judge Corinne P. Grande sees her innovative punishment as preventing Germershausen from "slinking back into the dark," but just to be sure, she levied a $ 1,000 fine on him to be given to a program to help victims of child abuse.

Last fall, two affluent, white teenagers in ritzy Wellesley, Massachusetts, spray painted anti-Jewish and antiblack slogans on some automobiles and buildings. Their case has not gone to trial yet, but the public sentiment, as evinced on the talk shows and in letters to the editor, favors sentencing these two boys, who have acknowledged their guilt, to instruction in better human relations. Their crime of vandalism takes a back seat to their ideological "crime" of having the wrong attitudes. But perhaps the judge will not apply a stay-after-school-and-wash-the-blackboards punishment to the two. Perhaps.

In these cases and countless others, punishment exists in the law sufficient to chastise the actions of the criminals: fines, jail, supervised probation. But those punishments aren't sufficient in our current climate of policing their thoughts. Were Leona Helmsley your ordinary tax cheat, and repentant, maybe she wouldn't be inflicted for 750 hours on some drug-addicted children. (Presumably, we can now count a possible visit from Mrs. Helmsley as one of the dangers of drugs.) Were Rob Lowe a nobody, nobody would have paid vast sums for the tapes of his frolics, and this nobody would either have received a suspended sentence or a short term in jail, if that. Mr. Germershausen, Rhode Island child molester, would in saner times have gone to jail and somebody else, not the convict, would be doing outreach to potential child molesters in paid advertisements. And had our two spray-paint-happy teenagers sprayed "I Love Mom" on somebody else's car, they would be sentenced for defacing property and no one would be chattering about having them learn the right attitude toward mom.

The reductio ad absurdum is always at hand: Why not sentence men who run topless bars to counseling at the feet of Betty Friedan? Or those who mumble publicly about the Japanese Menace to instruction in international comity in a Sony touchy-feely therapy group? Or maybe force people who rail against affirmative action to lick envelopes for the NAACP? The possibilities are limitless. And the potential for increased thought-police tactics is also limitless.

Theft and destruction of property are demonstrable assaults upon the rights of others. And we have laws to contend with these crimes. Having the "wrong" point of view about people may be nasty, but in a country that trumpets its adherence to freedom of speech and freedom of the press such nastiness has been thought previously to be protected by our Constitution. Helping the drug-addicted is nice and necessary, but just how 750 hours in the company of Leona Helmsley will help anyone is beyond me.

I've more, but the blackboard awaits.

Contributing Editor David Brudnoy is WBZ Radio's late-night talk host, film critic for the Tab newspapers in Massachusetts, and a TV commentator.