Obscurity and the Law

Attorney Harvey Silverglate outlines some similarities between campus speech codes and abusive legal prosecutions, both of which rely upon increasingly obscure and vague language:

In some quarters I’m viewed as a lawyer with a professional identity problem: I’ve spent half of my time representing students and professors struggling with administrators over issues like free speech, academic freedom, due process and fair disciplinary procedures. The other half I’ve spent representing individuals (and on occasion organizations and companies) in the criminal justice system.

These two seemingly disparate halves of my professional life are, in fact, quite closely related: The respective cultures of the college campus and of the federal government have each thrived on the notion that language is meant not to express one’s true thoughts, intentions and expectations, but, instead, to cover them up. As a result, the tyrannies that I began to encounter in the mid-1980s in both academia and the federal criminal courts shared this major characteristic: It was impossible to know when one was transgressing the rules, because the rules were suddenly being expressed in language that no one could understand.

In his 1946 linguistic critique, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell wrote that one must “let meaning choose the word, not the other way around.” By largely ignoring this truism, administrators and legislators who craft imprecise regulations have given their particular enforcement arms—campus disciplinary staff and federal government prosecutors—enormous and grotesquely unfair power.

Hat Tip to Todd Zywicki at the Volokh Conspiracy

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