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  • Can a Facebook post land you in jail?

    The United States Supreme Court answered this question last week with a resounding “maybe.”

    That “maybe” comes in the case of Elonis v. United States. Anthony Elonis wrote some violent-sounding posts on Facebook detailing what he’d like to do to his ex-wife, an FBI agent, assorted police officers, and a local but unnamed kindergarten. The words seemed threatening, and so Elonis was arrested and convicted for sending threats across state lines in violation of the Interstate Communications Act.

  • So how do dictionaries define marriage, anyway?

    During oral arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges, Chief Justice Roberts wondered whether making same-sex marriage legal would nullify traditional dictionary definitions of marriage:

    Every definition that I looked up, prior to about a dozen years ago, defined marriage as unity between and man and a woman as husband and wife. Obviously, if you succeed, that core definition will no longer be operable.

    The Chief Justice can relax: new definitions of marriage won’t replace older ones, and expanding the legal scope of marriage won’t invalidate or discourage heterosexual unions. As Justice Ginsberg observed,

    You’re not taking away anything from heterosexual couples. They would have the very same incentive to marry, all the benefits that come with marriage that they do now.

    So just how do dictionaries define marriage?

  • What if printed books went by ebook rules?

    I love ebooks. Despite their unimaginative page design, monotonous fonts, curious approach to hyphenation, and clunky annotation utilities, they’re convenient and easy on my aging eyes. But I wish they didn’t come wrapped in legalese.

    Whenever I read a book on my iPad, for example, I have tacitly agreed to the 15,000 word statement of terms and conditions for the iTunes store. It’s written by lawyers in language so dense and tedious it seems designed not to be read, except by other lawyers, and that’s odd, since these Terms of Service agreements (TOS) are all about books that are designed to be read.

  • Charlie Hebdo shows there’s always some speech that isn’t free

    On January 7, 2015, terrorists attacked the offices of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing twelve, including the editor and several cartoonists. Much of the world denounced this brutal attack. French president François Hollande expressed outrage over the murder of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists, and millions of ordinary people rallied at the Place de la République in Paris, in the squares of other French cities, and in cities abroad as well, to reassert their commitment to free speech. Je suis Charlie became the chant of the day. 

    But Charlie fever proved all too brief. On January 11, the same world leaders who were chanting “Je suis Charlie” called for increased police powers to spy on the internet activities and mobile phones of terrorists, suspected terrorists, people who might one day become terrorists, and for good measure, just about everybody else on the planet, including cartoonists. There was little outrage that this surveillance, calculated to protect everyone’s speech, could actually wind up suppressing speech. And by the time the survivors of the Charlie Hebdo massacre published a new issue on January 14, with a cover of Muhammad shedding a tear and holding a sign that says, “Je suis Charlie,” many of those who had condemned the murder of cartoonists now said, free speech is important, but insulting religion invites serious consequences. 

  • Arabic Pledge of Allegiance brings protests

    To celebrate Foreign Language Week, established by proclamation by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to “highlight programs that encourage American youth to broaden their horizons...and understand and communicate with people of other nationalities and nations,” a student at Pine Bush High School in upstate New York recited the Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic over the school’s PA system during morning announcements. Students immediately protested, and the school superintendent received “complaints from district residents who had lost family members in Afghanistan and from Jewish parents who were equally outraged by the reading” (the school had been sued in 2013 for antisemitism). FoxNews headlined their report of the story, “One nation under Allah.”

    Responding to the furor, Pine Bush High School immediately canceled Foreign Language Week and ditched plans to have the Pledge recited in Japanese, Spanish, or Klingon. From now on, Pine Bush will only pledge in English, and it will only celebrate Foreign Language Week in English. After all, English is a foreign language in North America.

  • The internet of things? More like the internet of snitches.

    We call it the internet of things, but it’s really the internet of snitches, because snitches reveal things about us we might prefer to keep under wraps. These devices in our cars, refrigerators, and DVRs regularly track and report not just their status, but our status as well: what we’re doing with the devices, and where. It’s an indirect report, to be sure, but it erodes our privacy all the same. Now, two new web-enabled gadgets— a TV and a doll—directly record and report what we say, which is the very definition of snitching, and our ebook readers, which have been around a bit longer, can even peek inside our heads to expose what we think.

  • "She" -- Chelsea Manning and the first-ever court-ordered pronoun

    In what could be the first-ever case of a court-ordered pronoun, a U.S. Army tribunal has ordered prison officials to use a feminine pronoun when referring to Chelsea Manning, who has changed her gender identity from male to female. . . . In plain English, the Army doesn’t have to call her Chelsea, but it does have to call her ‘she.'


  • Why is National Grammar Day different from all other days?

    Today is National Grammar Day, otherwise known as the Feast of Purism. It is the holiest day of the Purist calendar.

    It is the day all foolish children ask, why is National Grammar Day different from all other days?

    On all other days, you tell the foolish child, “It is different because I said so.” But on National Grammar Day, you must make the foolish child listen to yet another endless retelling of the story of our liberation from the tyranny of prescriptive grammar.

  • Don't make English official, ban it instead

    It's International Mother Language Day, and once again, the U.S. House of Representatives is considering legislation to make English the official language of the United States. Supporters of the measure say that English forms the glue that keeps America together. They deplore the dollars wasted translating English into other languages. And they fear a horde of illegal aliens adamantly refusing to acquire the most powerful language on earth.

    I would like to offer a modest alternative: don’t make English official, ban it instead.



  • 2015's word of the year is "autocorrect"

    The word of the year for 2015 is autocorrect. It may seem strange declaring the word of the year for a year that is only just starting. We’ve just named 2014’s word of the year, after all, and it is torture, because 2014 had plenty of that. But even though we tend to look back at the end of the year to the events that shaped it—the top ten news stories of the year, the films most annoying to North Korea, the best countries that have been invaded, the most significant airbag failures, the grammar rule most honored in the breach—at the end of the year we also start making predictions about the year to come: will politicians continue cozying up to white supremacists or will they be too busy smoking Cuban cigars? Will film makers see that featuring dictators in low brow comedies may put studio mainframes at risk, but it’s great for box office? Will dictators release their own annoying films depicting unpleasant things that might happen to Hollywood directors? Plus, autocorrect represents a highly-refined, first-world kind of torture, and considering what 2014 was like, some correction seems in order.

  • Noah Webster defines torture, 1828

    Noah Webster’s Word of the Year for 1828 was torture, too

    It’s December, and time to choose the Word of the Year, the word or phrase that represents the very best of 2014. That’s a heavy burden for a year full of very worsts, from ISIS, Boko Haram, and the Pakistani Taliban to Ebola, Hands up! Don’t shoot, and I can’t breathe. The promising Arab Spring has faded, not so gracefully, into the Arab Winter, and the umbrella protests in Hong Kong this Fall did little to improve the climate of democracy in China.

    Speaking of winter, December brought enhanced interrogation techniques, or EITs, back into our vocabulary. This euphemism for torture resurfaced with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA detention and questioning of terror suspects. Coming as it does at the end of a year of one bad thing after another, torture is my choice for the 2014 Word of the Year: it’s the epitome of what went wrong, not just with counterterrorism, but with everything.

  • Post on Facebook, go directly to jail

    Post on Facebook, go directly to jail?

    Can a Facebook post land you in jail? When is a threat a threat, and when is it just good, clean fun, or even art? If you write a song about killing your spouse, but you haven’t killed them, at least not yet, will the First Amendment protect you from prosecution? These are some of the questions that the U.S. Supreme Court considers as it decides the case of Elonis v. United States.

  • Red grouper: tangible or intangible?

    Can you touch a fish? A fisherman says you can’t.

    Can you touch a fish? One fisherman says that you can’t. John Yates, the ex-captain of a fishing boat, was convicted under a law that makes it illegal to destroy records, documents, or tangible objects in order to impede a federal investigation, and he’s asking the United States Supreme Court to reverse that conviction because fish aren’t “tangible objects.” He ought to know; he catches them for a living. 

  • Speak the language of your flag

    America’s War on Language

    2014 is the centennial of World War I, time to take a closer look at one of its offshoots, America's little-known War on Language

    In April, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. In addition to sending troops to fight in Europe, Americans waged war on the language of the enemy at home. German was the second most commonly-spoken language in America, and banning it seemed the way to stop German spies cold. Plus, immigrants had always been encouraged to switch from their mother tongue to English to signal their assimilation and their acceptance of American values. Now speaking English became a badge of patriotism as well, a way to prove that you were not a spy.

    The war on language was fought on two fronts, one legal, the other, in the schools. Its impact was immediate and long-lasting. German was the target, but the other “foreign” tongues suffered collateral damage. Immigrant languages in America went into decline, and there was a precipitous drop in the study of foreign languages in US schools as well. 

  • Europe expands the power of the delete key

    The right to be forgotten

    The internet is a place where, without even trying, words achieve immortality. Once posted, even the most frivolous thoughts are automatically copied, archived, and indexed. To be sure, the web can be ephemeral. Studies show that much online information is short-lived, with up to eighty-five percent disappearing within a year. And we’ve all had the frustration of failing to find something that we read online just the week before. 

    But words do have permanence. Back in the first century BCE, the Roman poet Horace advised young writers not to put their words out into the world too soon: nescit vox missa reverti, ‘the word, once sent, can never be recalled.’ Today that advice would be, 'an email once sent . . . .' There is simply no “undo.” Horace 2.0 would warn, ‘The internet never forgets.’

    But a recent decision by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) tries to do just that, make the internet forget, because, according to the Court, everyone has the right to be forgotten.