'Seeking Civility': Book analyzes history of rage

Issue November 2003 By Lisa C. Johnson, Esq.

Yoga rage. Yes, it sounds like an oxymoron to me too. When we think of yoga, generally we think of peace, agility and gentleness of spirit, certainly not angry outbursts. But "yoga rage" is a new term for the frustration and lashing out that sometimes follows when one yoga student disrupts the concentration of another by accidentally stepping on their mat.

Recently, it seems that there have been more and more types of "rages." Air rage, road rage, cell phone rage. Baseball rage? More and more people seem inordinately enraged by just about everything. This translates into the possibility of bad behavior just about anywhere at any given time.

A book soon to be released - "Seeking Civility: Common Courtesy and the Common Law" - assembles and examines a multitude of cases involving many forms of outrage.

The focus of "Seeking Civility" is on intentional torts, so cases of negligence are not discussed. Among other topics, assault, battery, trespass, nuisance and intentional infliction of emotional distress are addressed.

"Seeking Civility" is like a casebook for Intentional Torts 101. It would be great extra reading for first-year law students with some extra time on their hands. Another oxymoron. Also, it is interesting reading for anyone else.

About the book …


Title: "Seeking Civility: Common Courtesy and the Common Law"

Authors: George W. Jarecke and Nancy K. Plant

Description: An examination into how the American legal system intersects with disrespectful behavior and bad manners

Publisher: Northeastern University Press

Publication Date: Dec. 1, 2003

It is written in plain language, yet focuses on some complex legal issues and court procedure. The authors, George Jarecke and Nancy Plant, have written this book with a spirit of humor while still undertaking a serious and in-depth analysis. The book reads like a series of essays or like a movie that consists of several different vignettes.

We see a few different stories usually with a common theme tying all the stories together. The common thread in each chapter of the book is a seething anger by the parties mixed with some hurt feelings and refusal to compromise. Many similar cases are described in proximity to one another. Then the subtle nuances that differentiate one case from another are highlighted, showing how one difference was enough to change the result.

There are many interesting stories here. Because what are cases, but stories told about real people, who had a dispute that ended up in court? Some of the stories are quite amusing. We read stories in the news everyday about silly disputes between people, sometimes between neighbors, family or friends, and just know that somehow, some of them will wind up in a casebook one day. The authors remind us that these are real people behind the cases. Usually when we read cases, we are looking for a particular fact or point of law to help us with our own research. However, there was a great deal of time, money and emotional energy spent by all the parties involved.

For instance, one case highlighted in the book involved a 1982 loud music case out of Queens, N.Y. A man's next-door neighbor practiced drums for two hours everyday starting at 5:30 p.m. when he arrived home from work. The man asked his neighbor to stop, but he refused, stating that he needed to practice.

The court noted that the neighbor was a professional musician who played live performances and had recorded several albums. Still the man convinced the district attorney's office to bring a criminal action for public nuisance against the drummer. The court disagreed. In order to be guilty under the statute, the drummer would have needed to have the specific intent to harass or intimidate his neighbor and the drum playing would need to serve no legitimate purpose. This was not the case. The drummer needed to practice to further his career and was not intending to harass his neighbor.

Still another case from the book highlights a noise problem, but with a different result. During the 1950s in Prince George's County, Md., a radio placed in the window of one house annoyed next-door neighbors who had only a small space between the two homes. In August 1952, the Gormans put a radio in an open window facing the Sabos' house and blasted it. Nobody understood exactly what caused the rift between the families, but the assumption was that the children had some sort of squabble. For several years, the music blasted through the open window for hours each day, even during the cold winter months.

At the instruction of their mother, the Gorman children banged on metal objects to further annoy the Sabos. In order for the Sabos' children to take an afternoon nap, they had to be moved from their room facing the Gormans. The Gormans told all their neighbors about their feud with the Sabos and their campaign to make them so miserable they would move. Mrs. Gorman was heard to say on occasion that she hoped to see Mrs. Sabos lying on the floor bleeding and that the only way Mrs. Sabos was leaving that house was in a coffin or a straight jacket.

Needless to say, the Sabos filed a nuisance action against the Gormans, claiming that the noise unreasonably interfered with the enjoyment of their residence. The jury found that the Gormans' actions would bother someone in "the ordinary comfort, use and enjoyment" of their residence. The Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict.

There are several cases that are discussed which involve spite, neighbors and fences, which remind me of the silliness in some "Seinfeld" episodes. One case was an eight-year campaign of shock and awe, with statements that won't be repeated here, involving guns, broken glass and rats.

I have nothing bad to say about "Seeking Civility" except that it left me wanting a little more. Part two maybe, with some more recent cases. Many of the cases were much older, some dating back to the 1800s and some of the more recent cases are not so recent. However, even having these older cases served a purpose. Unfortunately, it showed that this problem with incivility is part of America's history. It is not a new phenomenon.

The authors even discuss how part of our American culture, which focuses on individual rights, may be at the root of the problem. There is a strong history of insults in this country. We have the right to be rude and say what we want up to a point. Fighting words are one of those points. A 1950s case out of Mississippi is a good example, as indicated in an example in the book discussing an 1822 "anti-dueling statute."

"Its purpose was to provide a person who was insulted with a means of retribution other than challenging his tormentor to a duel or visiting some other violence on him. Instead, the offended person can bring suit under this statute. The statute is thus intended to function like the law of battery, which allows the victim of harmful or offensive contact to bring suit as an alternative to taking violent revenge.

"Under the anti-dueling statute, it doesn't matter whether the insulting language constitutes a true or false statement. It's also irrelevant whether the words are spoken in anger. The language only needs to be 'calculated to lead to a breach of the peace.' … The Mississippi Supreme Court disagreed with the jury, finding that the words that so bothered Ms. Edens didn't come within the reach of the statute. … The court pointed out that Ms. Edens couldn't have been terribly compelled to react violently in response, as she waited seven months after receiving the letter not to breach the peace but merely to bring suit, and that, perhaps, only in response to Dr. Salvo's suit for his fee. 'Toothlessness,' the court concluded, 'is a misfortune but not a disgrace.' The statute simply didn't apply to these words."

I really enjoyed reading this book. It's a nice length - just fewer than 200 pages, including a useful bibliography at the end with a good summary of each of the noted sources. Although most of the cases are older, there is some discussion about how society makes attempts over time to address incivility. There is an analysis of some "smoking cases" that shows the trend from smoking just being an annoyance to being considered a battery if smoke was intentionally blown in someone's face.

However, the newer issues of smoking ordinances are not directly addressed with cases. The authors discuss etiquette and how good manners is one way to keep society functioning in a civil way, but it is not entirely reliable. That is why laws have always been needed and they change over time to adapt to society. And with new technology, there are new ways to behave in a less than civil manner toward one another, like cyberstalking or harassment over the phone. There have been new laws enacted to keep up with technology, but there is also netiquette for the proper ways of sending emails. Enforcing these new laws through litigation is sometimes the next course of action, but at what price? The authors encourage mediation, plain simple compromise and sometimes even an apology to defuse the situation.