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2 Cases Test Prohibition on Insulting Schoolteachers

July 12, 1986|JAMES QUINN | Times Staff Writer

A Ventura County Superior Court judge Friday upheld the constitutionality of an obscure state law, recently used against a Moorpark man and a Simi Valley woman, that makes it a crime to insult teachers on school campuses.

Rejecting arguments that the little-used statute is unconstitutionally vague, Judge Charles R. McGrath refused to dismiss charges against Ronald Lee Chunn and Nancy K. Wingrove, who were charged last year in unrelated cases.

Deputy Public Defender J. Michael Neary, the attorney for both defendants, said he will appeal the decision. Neither defendant has entered a plea to the charge, pending a test of the 1943 law's constitutionality.

Neary contends that the statute is so broad that, if widely enforced, it would chill free speech by inhibiting parents and others "from engaging in a wide range of activities, such as going to a parent-teacher night and complaining about a particular teacher."

'Maintaining Order'

But Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael D. Schwartz said the law "recognizes society's special concern with maintaining order in its schools."

McGrath did not explain his ruling except to say he found the law "acceptable and proper and not overbroad."

The law makes it a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 but no jail sentence, to insult a teacher on school grounds in the presence of other school personnel.

Neary and Schwartz said their research indicated that the law has never been appealed to a higher court.

In the first incident, Chunn, 20, shouted obscene remarks at two officials of Moorpark Memorial High School, the Ventura County Sheriff's Department alleged. Police say he cursed Principal Mary Quirk and Supt Michael R. Slater of the Moorpark Unified School District as he was leaving a pep rally at the school Nov. 6.

He was arrested the next day, then released on $500 bail.

Second Case

In the second case, Wingrove, 34, is accused of shouting at an assistant principal at Hillside Junior High School in Simi Valley, who, she contended, had unjustly accused her son of a bicycle theft.

Schwartz said Wingrove confronted Assistant Principal Ron Lucio in his office Dec. 12, repeatedly yelling: "I will sue you. I will get you, sucker."

She was not arrested but was sent a letter by the district attorney's office ordering her to appear in court. She was released on her own recognizance after the appearance.

Neary said the law makes teachers a "protected class. It means you can't go down to a school and stand up for a kid."

A parent visiting a school who told a teacher, "even in a calm voice, 'You're a terrible teacher,' could be prosecuted under this statute, provided some other school employee heard the remark," Neary said.

Schwartz argued that "for almost every law, you can think up instances where the facts might seem outlandish. But the intent of this law is to keep order in schools, and I submit that that is wise public policy."

He said there is precedent for laws that protect specific groups.

"There are special laws that say you can't yell and scream in court," said Schwartz, "and I think it's just as proper that there be a similar law for schools."

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