To Jail a Mockingbird

ABC News published an AP story Wednesday with the headline "Ohio Man Gets Jail for Mocking Disabled Girl."  Then it ran an expanded version of the story with the similar headline "Man Sentenced to Jail After Mocking Disabled Girl."

No doubt the initial reaction by most readers was "What a cruel, ignorant buffoon."  And earlier, there reportedly was an outcry for legal action after the girl's mother posted a video of the incident on Facebook and YouTube.  But the story also raises the question: if mockery is a crime, then why is sarcastic entertainer Bill Maher not on death row?

UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh explains that the headlines are misleading.  In fact, "[t]he sentence stems from two incidents":

  1. The teasing at a school bus stop, which is said to be "disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor of the fourth degree. A disorderly conduct is a minor misdemeanor and carries no jail time."

  2. Menacing, a more serious charge that stemmed from a different incident: defendant's "... swinging a tow chain on his porch, saying he was going to choke [the child's mother] until [she] stopped twitching."

So the crass neighbor's jail time technically has nothing to do with his mocking, even though that was what had enraged viewers of the video.  That means it's possible that the prosecutor and the judge encouraged the mother to recall some other incident that could lead to jail time in order to punish her neighbor for the mockery, as demanded by the YouTube mob.  (The same way prosecutors recently jailed the "Innocence of Muslims" filmmaker, I suppose.)

And perhaps ABC News wrote the misleading headline specifically to generate more page views and advertising clicks.  As the saying goes, "Welcome to showbiz, kid."

Although ABC did provide details of the jail sentence in the 17th paragraph of its story, many readers probably missed that point.  For example, in the ten thousand-plus reader comments, most thought the man had been jailed for mockery.  And the mob of ten thousand seemed quite pleased with this "justice," even though such mockery is protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

It's ironic that ABC News, a direct beneficiary of the First Amendment, published a headline that caused of its audience to demand that the First Amendment be applied selectively, according to mob rule.  Perhaps ABC has stepped onto a slippery slope.  If YouTube audiences demand it, will a prosecutor and judge someday imprison ABC's George Stephanopoulos, too?