Here's what happened in California, and I swear I'm not making it up:
Every solid citizen has been in a real foul mood for 15 or 20 years on account of the fact that there's almost nothing fun or the least itty-bit dangerous anyone can do without running into the long arm of the law. You can't even shoot an intruder who gets caught in your hallway at half past midnight or giggle at a Polish joke without finding yourself caught in a legal morass that traps you for years and sucks your entire life savings into the European vacation account of some attorney/amateur golfer.
But you accept this as marginally better than life in some communist totalitarian hell hole, which was commonly depicted, until recently, as the relevant alternative. You pretty much keep quiet, pay usurious taxes, fork over insurance premiums about equal to the GDP of Tonga, and try to steer clear of the legal system the best you know how.
Then, one of our friendly neighborhood loonies—the kind the California Poverty Assistance Legal Center for the Defense of the Criminally Insane routinely uses some slice of your gross earnings to spring from cruel and inhumane incarceration—cracks. He thinks he's been chiseled by a law firm, and he assaults their plush San Francisco skyscraper offices with the appropriate gear: By the time he turns one of the guns on himself, eight others lie dead. A modern-day tragedy.
You'd think it was time for a moment of silence. Not at L.A. Law. Before the dead could be buried, the chief of the California state bar association, the Hon. Harvey Saferstein, called a Century City press conference to blame the mass murder on…society. Whereas the unsophisticated mind may have placed the culpability for murder on the murderer, it took a highly trained legal specialist to note the real culprit: lawyer bashing. And, having ID'd the suspect, the counselor was ready with a remedy: extending "hate crimes" to include extra punishment for those denouncing members of the bar.
Let me see. People are upset about lawyers blaming the victims, letting criminals off the hook, and loading up society with costly, excessive litigation. And so here, when a nut shakes loose and mows down innocent human beings, the head lawyer says not one word about punishing wrongdoers. Instead, he shines the light of responsibility on those who joke about lawyers. And next time you begin a paragraph with, "Did you hear about the plane that crashed with 200 lawyers on board," he's going to sue you. That is a good start.
Mr. Saferstein is a tribute to his species. His press conference singled out people who enjoy what they thought was innocent good fun—dead-lawyer jokes and commercials that describe a "perfect planet" as one devoid of attorneys—and nailed them for murder. Comparing lawyer humor to racist stereotyping, he blamed the public for contributory negligence. If you've told an attorney joke, shame.
Well, I've told plenty of 'em. And I don't feel the slightest bit guilty. Indeed, I believe that lawyer-bashing jokes are a) fun, b) funny, c) healthy, and d) a prophylactic against physical aggression (sometimes called "a release"). Are they true? No—because then we wouldn't be joking. Something absurd that happens in real life is called…a California bar association press conference.
The gunman in the San Francisco tragedy, Gian Luigi Ferri, 55, claimed the firm he was shooting up gave him bad advice on an investment. A four-page note found on his person threw accusations at members of the firm who had "raped" him, calling them "rapists, criminals, and racketeers." Psychologists were quick to describe the deceased as suffering from paranoia and a victim complex.
Mr. Saferstein was apparently touched by this surprisingly contagious malady. Although he viewed all lawyers as members of a victim class, the legal beagle conceded, according to the Los Angeles Times, "that no evidence exists of a connection between lawyer jokes and violent acts against lawyers." This did not stem his feelings of persecution, however, or keep him from lashing out at law-abiding citizens for wrongful joking. They're endangering my people! he intuited, screaming against ominous trends, oblivious to reality.
In his delusional state, Mr. Saferstein missed an important point: Outlawing verbal lawyer bashing just might contribute to the real thing. There's a null hypothesis you could test out in your very own backyard, Mr. Saferstein. Tell your wife and kids they are not to utter one facetious, derogatory word to you, or about you, for the rest of their natural lives. Please report back your results. You or your heirs.
Lawyer bashing is a popular sport in America, no doubt. And some would say that lawyers are a despised class in contemporary society (catch the recent best seller 101 Things to Do With a Dead Attorney) because of a common perception: They cause trouble for people minding their own business while getting criminal perpetrators off the hook with cutesy little lawyerly tricks. Some of us had thought that might have been a misperception, but happily Mr. Saferstein salvaged the conventional wisdom.
And he kept an interesting chain of events in motion. The lunatic blamed the lawyers for his trouble. And he killed them. Now the lawyers blame us for their trouble, and they sue us. I guess the next move is ours.
Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.