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News Story
Updated: 02/10/2013 07:59:30AM

Pistols at dawn, anyone?

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S.L. Frisbie

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It used to be a lot easier to resolve these little disputes.

Pistols at dawn.

Back to back, walk 20 paces (no cheating!), turn, and fire.

One person’s honor was restored; the other person’s honor entered into permanent horizontal rest, along with the honoree.

As the price of dueling pistols went up, and the framers of the Constitution began to ponder if the Second Amendment really meant what it said, lawyers started replacing pistols as the weapon of choice for redress of grievances.

The results may not have been as dramatic, let alone as permanent, but it gave rise to a meteoric growth in the industry of tort law, and gave the newspapers something to write about on slow news days.

It may well be that the growth of the lawsuit industry actually speeded the development of television, since foggy mornings were not conducive to live coverage of duels (“Film at 11”) but endless interviews, complete with a generous dose of Harrumphing by the principals, was made-for-TV drama.

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The Tampa Bay area held its collective breath — as well as you can manage to hold your breath when you are laughing uncontrollably — at the drama of MJ vs. Bubba the Love Sponge. They have last names in the court filings, but they are better known by their shock jock monikers.

Apparently Mr. Sponge offended Mr. J by calling Mrs. J a name that I am not allowed to use, lest Mother rise from her grave after 23 years and wash my mouth out with one of those unscented soaps that she grew up with. All I can say by way of a clue is that the “w” is silent.

Mr. Sponge assured Mr. J that he intended the term only in the most constructive and affectionate context, but Mr. J was unconvinced.

So Mr. J sued Mr. Sponge for what he deemed to be an egregious slur against his beloved.

A jury was unsympathetic, and awarded him not a farthing.

Reporters who normally have better sense accepted the defense team’s claim that this was a triumph for Freedom of Speech.

Baloney!

This was a case, as some called it, of the pot calling the kettle black. Shock jocks make a remunerative living by such conduct, and this case was more about theatrics than justice.

I would suggest that it would be like two prizefighters competing for a world championship, and the loser suing the winner for assault and battery.

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Adding to the plot, Mr. J’s lawyer was arrested for DUI during the trial after allegedly (the most overused word in reporting such incidents) having “a drink” with an attractive woman who was allegedly (that word again) in the employ of Mr. Sponge’s lawyers, a detail unknown to Mr. J’s counsel.

And somebody dimed him out, calling the police with a tip that Mr. J’s lawyer was about to drive the young lady’s car, whereupon the aforesaid barrister was arrested, and the aforesaid attractive woman allegedly (you know the drill) got access to the briefcase containing the battle plan for whichever side left its notes in her car.

Sorry, I am beginning to lose track of the players.

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This week, the judge began an inquiry into the conduct of the lawyers, who customarily operate by a higher standard than the shock jocks they represented.

Allegedly, at least.

In the words of Jeff Stidham, a highly respected journalist who now is a spokesman for the court system, the judge “wants to figure out if anything nefarious happened” in the conduct — the alleged conduct — of the opposing legal teams.

The duration of this inquiry is subject to speculation, but it adds another act to the show.

With pistols at dawn, it would have been what we in journalism call a one-day story.

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(S. L. Frisbie allegedly is retired. He commends his friend Jeff Stidham on the use of the term “nefarious.” Journalists are good at stuff like that, even those who have left the fold.)


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