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Posts Tagged ‘Free Speech

“The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization”*…

 

Cretin (n), “A stupid, vulgar, or insensitive person.”

It’s ironic that cretin is used to describe an insensitive person, because its origin is terribly insensitive. Cretin, like spaz, is an insult that evolved from a very real and very dreadful medical condition. It comes from a word used in an 18th century Alpine dialect. The word was crestin, used to describe “a dwarfed and deformed idiot.” Cretinism was caused by lack of iodine resulting in congenital hypothyroidism. Etymologists believe the word’s root, the Latin “Christian,” was to be a reminder that cretins were God’s children, too.

From Mental Floss, the origin of 10 familiar insults.

* Sigmund Freud

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As we mind our language, we might recall that it was on this date in 1919 that the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Schenck v. United States-- in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s opinion famously observed that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”  As his observation passed into common parlance, “falsely” fell away and the condition of the theater was embellished– so that “shouting fire in a crowed theater” has come to stand for speech that is dangerous and unlawful.  The ever-precise Holmes recognized that, if in fact there were a fire in a crowded theater, one may rightly shout “Fire!”; indeed one might, depending on the law in operation, be obliged to.

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Special “The Irony of It All” Edition…

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Yesterday, in the midst of a wholesale effort to squelch Wiikileaks (e.g., here), The U.S. government announced that it will be hosting World Press Freedom Day in 2011.

Meantime, one can perfectly easily use a Mastercard (or Paypal or Visa) to buy counterfeit products, download porn, purchase guns… but not to donate to Wikileaks…

“Jonathan Swift!  Calling Dr. Jonathan Swift!…”

He who writes (the rules) wins the game…

(from the ever-illuminating Language Log)

As we sharpen our pencils, we might recall that it was on this date in 1971 that the U. S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Paul Cohen for disturbing the peace, setting the precedent that “vulgar” writing is protected under the First Amendment.

In April of 1968, Cohen had been arrested in the L.A. County Courthouse for wearing a jacket the back of which read “F–k the Draft”; he was charged with and later convicted of violating section 415 of the California Penal Code, which prohibited “maliciously and willfully disturb[ing] the peace or quiet of any neighborhood or person [by] offensive conduct.”

In a 5-4 decision, SCOTUS upheld Cohen’s appeal.  In the majority opinion, Justice John Marshall Harlan averred that “one man’s vulgarity  is another’s lyric.”  (For the minority, Justice Harry Blackmun demurred, arguing that Cohen’s “absurd and immature antic” was conduct, not speech– and thus should not be afforded First Amendment protection.)

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