All About BS

Thomas Markovich didn't like what former President George H.W. Bush had to say at the 1998 Texas Book Festival, so he yelled "Bullshit!" -- repeatedly, police say. Three years later, the former UT student may be prosecuted for his expletive, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled last week.

Markovich's comment and subsequent arrest came after police had escorted out high-profile activist and UT journalism professor Bob Jensen and fellow activist Michael Corwin for their comments. All three were charged with disrupting a meeting, a Class B misdemeanor. While Jensen's charges were dismissed on a technicality, and Corwin plea-bargained for community service, Markovich fought his case -- and Travis County Attorney Ken Oden fought Markovich. A judge eventually dismissed the charge (and the law) as unconstitutional. However, an appeals court reinstated the case, and now the Court of Criminal Appeals finally has ruled that, despite what some may view as a violation of First Amendment rights, the law is constitutional and the case can go forward. The law prohibits people from disrupting a meeting with the intent of preventing it from continuing, the Court decided.

Markovich's attorney disagrees with the ruling. Though the infraction is commonly referred to as "disrupting a public meeting," Kenneth Houp says the word "public" never appears in the statute. "It just says 'a meeting,'" he asserted. "So theoretically, if one of your family members at the Thanksgiving turkey dinner table got a little unruly, you could probably have him prosecuted under this statute, which is one of the reasons why we're arguing it's overbroad." Houp plans to see whether a jury thinks that what Markovich did constitutes a substantial disruption -- "with emphasis on the word 'substantial.' I don't think factually it is."

Meanwhile, Oden says he's pushing the case against Markovich to establish "what the rules are." People who hold meetings, he reasons, "have a right to have the meeting." In the past, Oden has refused to take up criminal charges on individuals who have screamed expletives in the Capitol at public officials, yet he remembers prosecuting a case against someone whose protracted screaming stopped a debate in the Lege. "That is the dividing line," he said.

Oden did say that he strongly supports being able to yell "bullshit" at public officials as long as it doesn't stop lawful activities from happening. "I've yelled 'bullshit' myself a few times," he said, "and I've had it yelled at me."

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