Don’t Taunt Me, Bro

Via Eugene Volokh at WaPo/VC, a post whose title demands repeating:

Your mother, officer, was a hamster, and your bicycle smells of elderberries

Come on, you have to love the Monty Python reference. It’s perfect here.  Eugene’s reference is to an Arizona law prohibiting, inter alia, the taunting of specific “vulnerable” parties.

A. A person commits harassment [a misdemeanor] if, with intent to harass or with knowledge that the person is harassing another person, the person: …


E. For the purposes of this section, “harassment” means conduct that is directed at a specific person and that would cause a reasonable person to be seriously alarmed, annoyed or harassed and the conduct in fact seriously alarms, annoys or harasses the person….


It goes on to include the taunting of people who ride bicycles, rollerblades, skateboards, etc.  Parts of the law, such as throwing things at people, would, with some modification (such as excluding the throwing of an unused tissue, for example, since some will argue that the throwing of a used tissue could spread disease) would be one thing, but taunts?

Taunts?  As Eugene says:

Seriously? It should be specifically made a crime to “taunt” police officers in ways that causes them (and would cause a reasonable person) to be seriously annoyed? And bicyclists and skateboarders, too?

If you wonder what the impetus might be for the great many folks on the internets constantly whining about how anything that hurts their feelings is a CRIME, CRIME, CRIME, the enactment of laws like this suggests why.

But this law holds a special place for the taunting of a police officer, who is defined as a “vulnerable user of a public way.” Dear cops, have people really hurt your feelings that badly?  Is that why you pre-emptively use such foul language when addressing people on the street?  Is it really just a defense mechanism to protect your fragile self-esteem?  Do you cry yourselves to sleep at night after returning home from a day of beating people to make sure that no harm befalls you?

If so, I would like to apologize on behalf of all the mean people who have uttered unpleasant words to you.  We never knew.  We thought you guys were pretty tough, enough so that when we suggested that you miss a day at Dunkin’ Donuts, you could laugh it off.

The truth is, you look pretty dashing in that blue uniform, and even more so when you don all that ex-military body armor and black fatigues. Kinda ninja like, if you squint and don’t think too hard.  No, really. You look pretty cool. I bet a certain kind of gal digs it.

No one actually farted in your general direction. They just said that to gross you out.

The problem is that few of us realized just how vulnerable you were. The whole you’ve-got-weapons thing and we don’t made us think you weren’t vulnerable at all, and that if anyone was vulnerable, it was us at your mercy.

So we’re sorry. Not that you couldn’t go with a little exercise, but you probably know that already and hear too much about it at home. You don’t need us taunting you about it. Or about your being unpleasant to be around when you’re angry. No doubt your wife told you about that too.


The Arizona law offers another opportunity to not only ponder the implications of laws criminalizing speech, but about how the use of artfully crafted language gives rise to the appearance of justification in the absence of substance.

What is “taunting?” The law defines it as a subset of harassment that “seriously alarmed, annoyed or harassed” (note how the definition of harassment includes something that “harassed”? Helpful, right?) a specific person.  The problem is that it can only be determined by the sensibilities of the “specific person.”  They are “seriously annoyed” because something seriously annoys them. Like, “your mother was a hamster.”  Ah, the annoyance. It’s more than I can bear.

The proliferation of such laws in an effort to cleanse society of hurt feelings and compel people, under pain of conviction, to only utter words that please the listener, not only offends the First Amendment, but would create an insipid world.  Someone says your idea is stupid? Hurtful. Someone says you’re not very good at something that you’re not, in fact, very good at? Hurtful. Lock them up for making me feel bad.

Yet, before you nod your head in agreement, ponder whether you really mean it or only when it applies to the other guy.  Are you willing to accept your ox being gored on occasion?  Are your shoulders broad enough to withstand someone calling you ugly? Even if you’re a cop, or on a bike?

And yes, I know that I really don’t need to rush whenever the donuts come out of the oven, just like those I taunt.  But if you want to tell me so, I promise not to file a criminal complaint against you.  And my father does smell like elderberries.  We must get past criminalizing hurt feelings.


17 thoughts on “Don’t Taunt Me, Bro

    1. SHG Post author

      I can’t speak to the first part of your sentence, but as to the final clause, the answer is “absolutely.”

  1. Patrick Maupin

    As a sometimes bicyclist, I can understand the frustration of being shouted at from a car for no good reason — and I really mean no reason, e.g. when I’m well within the bike lane and the car is not even trying to turn right. When you’re a bicyclist, the guy in the car who swerves close to you and shouts epithets might as well be a lunatic with a gun.

    There is a problem, with a few bad actors trying to startle the bicyclist into overcompensating and having an accident, but the best answer so far is probably the state laws and statutes that have started popping up requiring motorists to give bicycles a buffer zone. I see no reason why these couldn’t be extended to any pedestrian.

    1. SHG Post author

      When you’re a bicyclist, the guy in the car who swerves close to you and shouts epithets might as well be a lunatic with a gun.

      Someone who’s been shot by a lunatic with a gun might disagree with you. Strongly.

      1. Patrick Maupin

        And someone who has actually been run over on purpose by the guy in the car (which has happened a few times around here) might disagree strongly with the guy who’s been shot at.

        My personal anecdotes include having had a gun pointed at me by a lunatic (but no trigger pulled) and having been lunged at by cars (with actual contact in a couple of cases in my youth) when I was on my bicycle. I rank them very similarly. A car really is a weapon.

        1. SHG Post author

          I hate getting into these discussions with cyclists, who never do anything wrong and are at the mercy of lunatics in cars. So, I demur.

          1. Patrick Maupin

            I cycle and drive, and see idiots operating all types of vehicles.

            In no wise do I think that the cyclist is never wrong — far from it, he is often, or even usually, wrong, especially if he is at that tender age where reasoning hasn’t really developed yet. FWIW, when my girls were young, my admonishment to them was always something along the lines of being extremely careful on their bikes, because if somebody hit and killed them, that poor person would have to live with that the rest of their lives.

            But when I’m cycling along solidly inside the bicycle lane and I have to swerve and brake hard because some idiot enters the bike lane in the process of performing a sudden U-turn, it’s a completely different feeling than when I’m in the car and have to take evasive action, for the simple reason that if I don’t manage to avoid contact, the likely outcome could easily be far worse.

            Yes, I take responsibility for my personal calculation of added life expectancy from getting more exercise vs. reduced life expectancy from venturing out on the mean streets without being wrapped in a 2 ton metal cage, but someone who wraps himself in one of those metal cages and then attacks an innocent building/pedestrian/bicyclist/whatever needs to be held accountable. And yes, I count deliberately trying to startle a cyclist who is travelling at 30 mph as an attack.

            1. SHG Post author

              This is why I don’t argue with cyclists. They just keep arguing no matter what. It’s boring, unproductive and waste of time.

        2. Jack

          As a person who HAS been actually hit (I went over it, it didn’t leave treads on my ass) by a moving vehicle, I am not going to disagree with anyone who has been shot by a lunatic.

  2. Brett Middleton

    Just out of curiosity, how does the legal system measure the severity of an annoyance? If someone put me on a stand and asked me whether I was seriously annoyed, moderately annoyed, or just kinda sorta annoyed, would I have to provide blood pressure readings taken at the time of the annoyance to justify my response? Or would I need to carry a stopwatch and show that my feelings of annoyance persisted for at least X minutes after a taunt to justify calling it severe? Or is it a matter of the word count of the taunt, the number of taunts within a given time frame, or the wittiness of the taunts? Under the wittiness standard, would an unoriginal taunt such as “fat pig” be considered as more annoying or as less annoying (given that one may pay less attention to a cliche heard frequently)? Would the truthfulness of the taunt have any impact on the annoyance factor, given that calling a skinny person “fat” might be more likely to produce a feeling of bafflement rather than annoyance? Inquiring minds …

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s proven with emphatic and breathless testimony.

      Q: Were you annoyed?

      A: I was. I was seriously annoyed. I mean really, really annoyed. I was so annoyed.

      Q. Thank you. No further questions.

    2. Charlesmorrison

      Please, please tell me this is in reality from an Onion article. Great, one more charge to tack on for leverage. “We’ll dismiss the resisting arrest & the annoying the cop charges, if your guy pleads to the remainder if the counts.”

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