Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Better Definitions

In our march to greater sanity, good news came yesterday. The Supreme Court decided unanimously (Justice Kagan had excused herself) that corporation could not claim “personal privacy” in protecting their papers. The case is Federal Communications Commission et al. v. AT&T Inc. et al. The Court’s opinion, written by Chief Justice Roberts, is here. The good news lies in the fact that the Court, while not challenging the notion that corporations are persons, does affirm that corporations are not human—and as such have no right to privacy. The relevant language is this:

AT&T’s argument treats the term “personal privacy” as simply the sum of its two words: the privacy of a person. Under that view, the defined meaning of the noun “person,” or the asserted specialized legal meaning, takes on greater significance. But two words together may assume a more particular meaning than those words in isolation. We understand a golden cup to be a cup made of or resembling gold. A golden boy, on the other hand, is one who is charming, lucky, and talented. A golden opportunity is one not to be missed. “Personal” in the phrase “personal privacy” conveys more than just “of a person.” It suggests a type of privacy evocative of human concerns—not the sort usually associated with an entity like, say, AT&T. [Emphasis added by me.]
Well! I find this encouraging. What Justice Roberts is doing here is actually weakening the concept of “person” as applied to an “entity.” That’s a step in the direction of sanity and promises possibly other definitional ventures.

One that comes to mind is the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the core of which is a definition. Our President has decided that it is unconstitutional, but he is not actually the person or the branch of the government designated to decide such matters. Hence DOMA may eventually be decided by the Supreme Court.

I hope that Justice Roberts also writes that opinion. He has a colorful way of expressing himself, and therefore I anticipate that he might, along with a whole slew of other examples taken from ordinary language, say something like the following: “When in that variant of the game of poker known as ‘Texas hold’em’ a player claims to have a ‘marriage’ in his hand, the player may be presumed to be holding a king and a queen, not a pair of jacks or a pair of queens.”

The use of the word “march” in the first sentence of this post is a pun intended.


  1. Words are tools humans use to communicate. As other work tools, words too may be used correctly or wrongly. The results, as in the case of work tools, will then be good, sometimes shoddy and at times even dangerous. Sloppily used words are of course quite different from deliberately misleading ones. In current political debates and discourse, it seems to me, cleverly misleading words are unfortunately heard and read far too often, with sometimes dangerous consequences.

  2. Ah, but as we saw in that Huffington Post piece today, these misleading words are heard less frequently in Canadian news braodcasts.

    Cheers to Canada!