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He who decides the meaning of the word is the master

By Thomas L. Jipping
web posted November 19, 2001

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all."

He who determines the meaning of words is indeed the master. Bill Clinton fiddled with the meaning of words such as "sexual relations," "alone," and "is" and became the master. He was impeached but not removed from office. He was suspended from practicing law in Arkansas but not disbarred. He cut a deal with the independent counsel but was not prosecuted. And now he's making six-figures a speech, doing commercials with Bob Dole, and working on his political future.

Judges are truly our masters by fiddling with the meaning of words. The Supreme Court does it with the Constitution all the time. The Court secularized our culture by fiddling with the words "establishment of religion" in the First Amendment. The Court gave the federal government power over everything by fiddling with the word "commerce" in Article I. The Court launched the culture of death by fiddling with the word "liberty" in the Fourteenth Amendment.

Legislatures and courts fiddle with the word "discrimination" and suddenly we find that treating people differently based on race is required to avoid treating people differently based on race. Fiddling with the words "sexual harassment" has transformed the workplace.

I attended law school at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The faculty unanimously passed a policy banning racist, sexist, anti-lesbian, ageist, and other remarks based on prejudice and group stereotype. But, I thought, the First Amendment applies to state institutions and the First Amendment doesn't allow bans on speech based on its content. And here, it was my First Amendment professor who had drafted this censorship policy. Then I discovered the faculty had just fiddled with words a little; these remarks were not actually speech, they said, but harassment. And schools can certainly ban harassment to improve the educational environment. Isn't that neat, just come up with a different label, call it something else, and anything is possible. Call it speech, and the Constitution makes me the master. Call it harassment, and the school authorities become the master. As Humpty Dumpty said, the question is which will be master, that's all.

Now we see the same thing happening in this war on terrorism. Everything from Special Forces troops and carpet bombs in Afghanistan to wiretaps, warrantless searches, and detention without criminal charges right here in America are being used against this thing called terrorism. Congress just radically expanded the FBI's powers to fight this thing called terrorism. The consequences of fiddling with the word "speech" in law school seemed major at the time, but the consequences that flow from the word "terrorism" can literally mean life and death.

Do we know what this thing called "terrorism" is, this thing that all the police and military might of the United States is attacking? You might have thought so, but in steps Tom Ridge, the Director of the new Office of Homeland Security. The anti-terrorism czar. Not long ago, he said something truly frightening. Referring to Americans who "lash out" at people who dress differently or practice a different religion, he said "we have a word for that: terrorism."

That law school censorship policy was so scary because what it prohibited was so open to subjective impression. I was called racist because I opposed race-based policies. I was called sexist because I opposed killing babies in the womb. I was called homophobic because I thought children ought to be raised by a father and mother. And who knows what "ageist" is? Suddenly, harassment was in the eye or ear of the beholder, a serious problem because attaching the label "harassment" had negative consequences.

Now we see the same problem on a grand scale. What is "lashing out"? Mr. Ridge was talking not about physical attacks, which of course would otherwise be against the law, but about speech. My law school labeled "harassment" speech the authorities did not like. Mr. Ridge appears to be saying the government will label "terrorism" speech the authorities do not like. Do you see a very troubling pattern here?

When the feds like Mr. Ridge use a word, it means what they choose it to mean, neither more nor less. Yes, they can make words mean different things and the power do so makes them the master. With all the new powers the feds just received, it makes all the difference in the world what the word "terrorism" means. It's the difference between freedom and tyranny, between life and death. Words are serious business.

Tom Jipping is the director of the Center for Law and Democracy at the Free Congress Foundation.

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