Some people believe that if you don't have something nice to say, you shouldn't say anything. And then there is Reinhold Aman.

Furious at his former wife's lawyer as well as the judge who ruled on his divorce, he made official complaints about them. Failing to get the response he sought, he resorted to sending hate-filled invective. For good measure, he sent some of the same to his own lawyer, while simultaneously firing her.

All that was bad enough, but then Aman clipped two headlines out of his local paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, pasted them on 19-cent postcards, and mailed them to the former Mrs. Aman in Waukesha, Wis.

"Man Kills Ex-Wife," said the first.

"Estranged wife is found slain in her home," said the second.

Aman added no comment of his own. "I just wanted to annoy her," he explains, "and keep her guilt alive" -- a reference to various financial injustices he says Shirley Aman inflicted on him in the course of their break-up, leaving him penniless.

Shirley was more than annoyed by this "prank." In March, Aman was arrested by seven FBI agents. Convicted on three counts of mailing threatening communications, he's scheduled to begin a 27-month term in a Long Beach, Calif., federal prison this afternoon.

It's a peculiar fate for the 57-year-old German immigrant. Since 1974, Aman's been publishing Maledicta, a journal devoted to the study of cursing, verbal aggression, vulgar language and offensive jokes. Invective was Aman's passion, but it cost him university tenure and his marriage. Now, barring a last-minute stay of sentence pending further appeal, it's put him in the slammer as well.

"I'm a pacifist," Aman maintains. "I shoot off my mouth instead of a gun." He quotes Freud: "The first person who hurled a curse instead of a weapon was the founder of civilization." The only problem: "They think anyone who talks the way I do must be physically aggressive too."

The letter that got him in the most trouble resembled a press release. Aman's attack on Wisconsin Circuit Court Judge Marianne Becker, as well as attorney Charles Phillips, promised "I will devote the rest of my life to destroy{ing} those two slimebags ... Shooting Old Bitch Becker and Filthy Phillips would be too fast and too painless. Those two bastards must die a very slow and painful death."

Asserts Aman: "I was just doing what all powerless people do -- draining off anger at adversaries through name-calling." What he didn't realize was that it is a felony to make threats through the U.S. mail. "If it's sent by UPS or Federal Express, it's not a federal crime," the scholar notes. "I'm going to be very careful in the future what carrier I use."

Both Phillips and Becker declined to comment for this story, but the judge reportedly was worried enough to start hearing cases behind locked doors, as well as distributing fliers with Aman's photo to court personnel.

Concluded one of the government memorandums in the case: "The defendant's history and characteristics suggest that he may be unbalanced; certainly, his conduct since 1989 evinces an alarming escalation in violent thought and conduct."

The scholar says in his own memo that he is all bark but no bite. "Now the ignorant prosecutors and federal attorneys are playing psychiatrist! ... It should not surprise anyone that I am getting more and more {ticked} off about that corrupt Wisconsin legal system."

Actually, that's only part of what he said. The rest of it can't be quoted in a newspaper. This fellow can't stop cursing. According to his new, court-appointed lawyer, that's part of the reason he's going to jail.

"There are so many letters that this guy sent," says John Miller Carroll. "Tons and tons of letters. ... You want to know the main reason he got 27 months? While we were waiting for the presentencing report, he wrote to Judge Becker's husband. She had testified that her family was in fear, and {Aman} apologized but blamed it all on Mrs. Becker, saying she had caused it. It was a backhanded way of accepting responsibility, and the judge didn't appreciate it."

And how did the presiding judge find out about the letter? Because Aman sent him a courtesy copy.

The lawyer believes this is a free speech issue. It's certainly true that the case revolved around subtle definitions of the meanings of words, especially "threat." In Carroll's view, a real threat must be conditional -- if something is (or is not) done, consequences will follow. The three counts Aman was convicted on, he argues, don't say that.

"When he says he'd like to see judges or lawyers shot or killed by their enraged clients, that's just a narrative description of what he thinks," says Carroll. It's not, in other words, a statement of intent.

He adds that "If someone is criticizing one of the branches of government, that's the ultimate kind of free speech."

Another problem in defining threats is that they're so subjective. "I'm going to get you for that" either can be a joke or an assertion made in dead earnest, depending on the context. In Aman's case, it was the recipients who determined the context. If they felt threatened, then legally they were.

Yet as Carroll points out, "He made every effort to discredit the lawyer and the judge before these letters were sent, including judicial complaints and grievances with the attorney's oversight board. There was no love lost between these people. ... So there was a lot of motivation to embellish how they actually felt when they received" the letters.

The feelings of Shirley, who was married to Aman for three decades, are unknown. "I'm terribly sorry about the whole thing," she says. "I just want to get on with my life." She refused further comment.

Her ex-husband, meanwhile, is unrepentant. His only concession: "I used to call myself Uncle Maledictus, meaning the cursed one, the damned one. I'm going to change now to Uncle Benedictus -- the blessed one, the good one. I hope that will bring better luck."