Thursday, May 6, 2004

Shots-and-beer defense shot down by judge

Peter Bronson

I've covered trials of psycho killers, child molesters and even a Satan worshiper. But I've never seen anything more like a "Far Side" cartoon than the federal case over the Mariemont Bavarian Beer Battle.

A lawyer put his wife and stepson on the stand Monday, then rose red-faced to object when the boy was questioned about knocking back shots in Germany.

Later, high school students snickered as their principal was peppered with questions reminiscent of Principal Rooney being attacked by a Rottweiler in Ferris Buehler's Day Off.

Parents swore to tell the truth, then said with a straight face they had no problem with their high school sophomores imbibing "Bavarian culture'' in German beer gardens.

A school-district lawyer held his hands apart to describe "huge'' beer steins in Munich, as tall as a Black Forest gnome. In Ohio we call that a "six-pack in a glass.'' It's the one drunk drivers mean when they say, "I only had two beers, offisher, realllly.''

"The culture is very different there,'' the parents testified. "People around the world do things differently. It's not right or wrong, just different.''

Sure. Some cultures sacrifice goats, sell women and children or chew hashish like Doublemint. Some let their kids drink beer at age 16, like Germany.

"I got the impression over there that teenage boys are given free rein to wander the streets at all hours of the night and parents don't have any control," said the chaperone and social-studies teacher Donald Books. He said the Germans never reported that on previous exchange trips a Mariemont girl passed out in a beer garden and a boy stayed out all night and had to be found by German police.

Not right or wrong - just different. To someone from another culture - say, Elder - Mariemont sounds pretty different, too.

These facts, as they say in court, are not in dispute.

The parents told their kids it was OK to drink beer in Germany. A few got toasted. One passed out in public. The school imposed punishment - and parents sued to demand no discipline at all.

About halfway through the trip in Munich, Books told the kids, "You messed up big time and there will be consequences. You have disgraced your school.''

Yet one student went drinking two or three more times. His parents said it was no problem. They trusted his judgment.

As I know from personal experience, alcohol is an amazing solvent for removing stubborn inhibitions and dissolving judgment.

As I looked around at the good Mariemont families in court, like a Gap commercial in an episode of Law & Order, I wondered: Did it really need to come to a federal courtroom with red velvet drapes and mahogany paneling so serious it could make the contents of a cereal box sound like the Magna Carta?

No. Federal Judge Arthur Spiegel listened patiently and politely, then dismissed the case. You could see it coming from his first two questions: "Are you saying parents gave permission to these children to drink to excess?'' And, "What constitutional right?''

When the kids' lawyer worried that community-service punishments might bother German exchange students when they visit Mariemont, Spiegel said, "Maybe they could help out.''

He scolded the school for blurry rules that seemed to wink at student drinking - but found no constitutional right for parents to veto school rules.

Score one for Principal Rooney.

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