Lileks: Know what time it is at the Supreme Court? It's tool time!

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 31, 2013 - 8:42 PM

So I'm standing on Marshall Avenue in St. Paul during morning rush hour, the car in a snowbank, tire blown. The AAA guy can't get the wheel off, so he goes to the truck and brings back a block of wood.

Wham! Off goes the wheel. He holds up the wood.

"Swedish impact wrench," he says.

I am appalled. He's equated Sweden, and hence people of Swedish descent, with crude technology. It's particularly hurtful because a Swedish relative of my wife patented the modern crescent wrench, a technological contribution of which he was obviously unaware. I should go online and say the guy was a total tool.

I did not, for good reasons: A) When it comes to slights about my diverse Northern European heritage, my skin is not 0.001 millimeter thick. B) It was funny. C) Most important, he was changing my tire in the snow with good cheer while I stood there useless. I scribble and yammer for a living, and these guys fix things. Solve problems. Get you on your way. There's not one Triple-A guy who ever finds himself in need of a metaphor, and thinks "if only there was someone I could call to provide a figure of speech."

But let's say I was a jerk, and went online to complain about the remark. Let's say I called the guy who made a crack about a tool ... a tool. Would that be defamatory? If only there were a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling on the matter!

There is. The court has spoken. But first, rewind this a bit.

You go to law school: a long, hard, dry slog through case law and statutes, your youthful idealism withered by the realization that truth, in the legal sense, can be a slender reed battered by the gales of rhetoric. After graduation, there's private law -- lucrative, but you work horrible hours and never see your family. You're a bee that excretes gold, nothing more.

So you go into the public sector, and defend murderers for the same amount of money as an Applebee's manager, but someone has to, right? It's America. Someone has to rearrange the schedule so there's always enough servers on the nights when the Vikings play. What? Oh, right, defending murderers. That's important, too.

Then you're a judge, steering the balky cart of justice down its rutted path. For a few, the honor of the Supreme Court justice. You've arrived. Then one day you look at the case you have to decide.

Some guy called another guy a "tool" on the Internet. Is that OK?

This week the Supreme Court has declined to condemn tool-talk. The comment was made on a rate-a-doctor website, and the doctor took the poster to court. The Supremes dismissed the case. To be specific, "a real tool." (For all we know, "a false, inauthentic tool" is probably OK, as well.)

Too bad there's no trial; it would be fun to hear the defendant say it was meant as a compliment -- why, the doctor was the very definition of a useful implement. Like a drain snake or a plunger, he solved my problems; like a hammer, he connected the crossbeam of my questions to the 2-by-4 of my doubts. Tool-tastic, doc! Five stars.

What if you misspelled it, as people are wont to do on the Internet? "I went to this docter okay and he was to busy to ecsamine me and just looked at the chart and said I had a foot sprane. What a tule."

If "tool' was ruled as defamation, why not "tule"? There's intent. A lawyer might tell you: Libel does not require proper spelling. And you might tell the lawyer: The fact that you charged someone $175 for that remark constitutes everything that is wrong with America.

Other terms, however, remain in limbo. Dork, Dorkenhemier, Spaz (including Total Spaz), Jerk, Twanch, Dillweed, and of course Blathering Idiot in the Newspaper Who Just Goes On and On.

The last one is probably legal, but hey, go ahead, file suit. We need clarification on these matters. You'd hate to think that people go on the Internet and call other people stupid names without some guidelines. The reason this went to the Minnesota Supreme Court, after all, is because a lower court couldn't say "tool" was acceptable public speech. Bravery personified. Wouldn't want to call them tools, though.

Tools are useful.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858

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