Intelligencer Columnist Lends Support to Cooley & Handy’s Appeal of Custody Contempt Fine Based on Father’s First Amendment Rights

Four Letters, Two Grand

By Phil Gianficano, Daily Intelligencer

May 3, 2009 – A Bucks County Judge recently instructed a Northampton man involved in a custody dispute to stop cussing when in the presence of his 9-year old daughter.

The judge subsequently learned the man violated terms of the agreement and uttered a four-letter word in front of the girl.

The word was not flock, but I’m guessing it probably and started and ended with those same letters. That would not be a surprise, since that cuss word is the champagne of four-letter words.

When Judge Wallace Bateman learned last month the man violated the custody order, he handed down a contempt order and fined him $2,000.

And by doing so seemed to have kicked freedom of speech in the shins.

Look, I agree the father should know better. Of course she shouldn’t cuss around his young daughter. No one should. It’s a dirty, nasty habit for many adults. Kids are thirsty sponges. You fire off a cuss word, they’re sure to sop it up. And chances are they’ll wring the dirty water on someone else.

My wife and I have two young ones, ages 7 ½ and 4 ½. Before the kids were born, and it was just the two of us in the house, I’d fire off cuss words like I was Buddy Hackett doing the midnight show in Vegas. Whenever one of my favorite sports teams was making like the Bad News Bear on TV, I’d paint the room with so much blue you’d swear we were having another boy.

But that was then.

Now with those two little sponges around, my colorful outbursts have become nearly non-existent. And when they do occur, it’s after their bedtime.

“I can’t believe he tried to go from second to third on a routine grounder too short! What the f…uuudge is he doing? Hey, honey, do you think the kids are asleep yet?”

And remember, my f-bombs were dropped without the incredible level of stress from a custody case tightening around my head like a vice.

Again, the father should know better. But two grand for dropping that word? That’s the going rate now?

What if the father was really ticked off at the child’s mom – she and he were never married, by the way – and he blurted out something worse? What does Judge Bateman do then, fine him 10 grand and give him 5-to-10 in Grateford?

Again, the father should know better. But should his lack of decorum when in presence of his child trump his constitutional rights?

The answer could lay in the hands of state Supreme Court as the father’s attorney, Kevin Handy of Doylestown, has appealed the fine to the high court. But his client could be waiting awhile for the ruling as it may take the court several months to even consider the appeal.

Of course, the father might not get much sympathy from at least one of the Supreme Court judges provided the case gets that far. The Hon. Seamus McCaffery is that former gavel-wielding Philadelphia judge who presided over an ad hoc court in the basement of Veterans Stadium during Eagles games in the late 1990s. No-nonsense Seamus handed out fines and jail time to rowdy fans arrested during games like he was handing out candy on Halloween.

In the meantime, the father had best keep a lid on the f-bombs when he’s around his kid.

At $500 a letter, venting can be an expensive habit to keep.