See, hear and speak no evil monkeys

Consider the curse of curse words. Some publications steer clear of them altogether. Some embrace them in whole, in part, or in different forms and different fonts. Some have found stances shifting in a world where political figures are becoming less hesitant to let the expletives fly.

But what to do when such a word sits stubbornly at the center of a U.S. Supreme Court case?

Washington Post court reporter Robert Barnes

Robert Barnes

Washington Post reporter Robert Barnes recently wrote a fascinating preview of Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., a case (to be argued before the high court this week) that may set the contours of free speech for students throughout the country.

When it came time to kick off his story about a cheerleader and her judicially consequential middle finger, Barnes wrote:

The high school cheerleader relegated to the JV squad for another year responded with a fleeting fit of frustration: a photo of her upraised middle finger and another word that begins with F.

“F—- school, f—- softball, f—- cheer, f—- everything,” 14-year-old Brandi Levy typed into Snapchat one spring Saturday. Like all “snaps” posted to a Snapchat “story,” this one sent to about 250 “friends” was to disappear within 24 hours, before everyone returned to Pennsylvania’s Mahoney Area High School on Monday.

The lede shows reporters how to inject playfulness into serious stories without diminishing them. Barnes doesn’t skimp on importance; he explores nuances, probes the history of past judicial rulings and the leanings of individual justices, and includes Levy’s voice. (I like the detail that fellow students call her “B.L.,” the abbreviation used in court documents.)

But Barnes also writes a lively first sentence powered by wordplay. The run of three Fs in four words (“fleeting fit of frustration”) slyly primes readers for the arrival of the case’s central word, or, as Barnes phrases it, “another word that begins with F.”

It’s a delight to read. Efficient, too. Once readers reach the second paragraph — where some letters of Levy’s profanities are hidden by hyphens — they know the “who” and “what” of the story and are ready for more context.

For readers, it’s a memorable launch into a story about the shifting battleground of free speech.

For journalists, it’s a 33-word reminder to occasionally employ a word that starts with F.

No, another word that starts with F: fun.


Trevor Pyle is a staff writer at the daily Skagit Valley Herald north of Seattle.

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