Thursday, November 8, 2012

Shuy: The Language of Defamation Cases (2010)

Roger Shuy is a so-called "forensic linguist," meaning that he appears as an expert witness in court cases that centrally involve questions about language, such as libel suits. He's written a number of books reporting on cases he's been involved in, the most recent being The Language of Defamation Cases.

His discussions are interesting because they show how quickly our unreflected notion of "meaning" starts to come undone when it gets exposed to the extreme hair-splitting that libel suits unavoidably entail. "What a statement means" becomes less rather than more clear when you look at it up close.

Frank Celebrezze v. The Plain Dealer

In 1986, the (Republican) Cleveland newspaper The Plain Dealer ran a series of stories about the (Democratic) Ohio Supreme Court justice Frank Celebrezze. Shortly thereafter, Celebrezze lost the race for re-election for the Supreme Court.

Before the publication of the articles, Celebrezze had taken campaign donations from labour unions, and some of these labour unions had members who were convicted of involvement in organized crime. As a judge, he had also voted against the conviction of people accused of organized crime at least twice.

So, one might conjecture that he was corrupt, and the mafia had bought his vote — and this was exactly what the two journalists Gary Webb and Mary Anne Sharkey claimed in a series of Plain Dealer articles, published immediately before the Supreme Court election.

Or was it? A closer reading of the articles in question revealed that they did not directly state that Celebrezze was corrupt, but one might argue that they suggested as much. Celebrezze consequently sued The Plain Dealer, and both he and the paper hired linguists to back their case.

Shuy represented the paper, and a local English professor was made Frank Celebrezze's case. Both experts wrote a report, but the case was eventually settled outside the court for an undisclosed sum.

The Apple of Discord

A number of quotes were brought to bear on the case. Most of them were headlines like this one:
Chief Justice denies mob role in contributions (p. 101)
But also some excerpts from the articles themselves were used, including this one:
In 1982 Celebrezze cast a tie-breaking vote against convicting Liberatore of arson. State records show that five days later, a Celebrezze campaign fund was given $5,000 … (p. 103)
The question was: Do these two sentences together imply that Celebrezze received the campaign donation as a result of his vote, or does it not?

The Argument Pro

According to Celebrezze's expert, both snippets of text indirectly implied that Celebrezze was guilty. With respect to the headline, the argument was a pragmatic one about presupposition:
If the headline had read Chief Justice Says Accusations Concerning Mob Role are False then the presupposition would have been that someone had made such accusations, not that the mob role was a given fact. (p. 101–102)
In other words, the claim is that the verb deny is veridical, or factive, while accusations concerning is not.

In the case of the quote, the argument refers to discourse coherence relationships:
Juxtaposing the two claims (that the judge had cast a tie-breaking vote and received money five days later) creates the obvious innuendo that there is a cause and effect relationship between the vote cast and the money paid. (p. 103)
So a reader searching for a coherent link between the two sentences will stumble upon cause–effect as the first likely candidate. This can be compared to the following examples, adapted from Jennifer Spenader:
  • Bill is worried that John might try to gain access to his safe. He'll have to change the combination. (therefore)
  • Bill is worried that John might try to gain access to his safe. He knows the combination. (because)
  • Bill is worried that John might try to gain access to his safe. I like spinach. (??)
Although the general claim that people will automatically search for discourse relations is sound enough, it is worth remembering that the choice of discourse relation is notoriously difficult to consistently agree on.

Arguments Contra

Shuy's own argumentation focused on the impotence of linguistics with respect to what a reader will extract from a text, or what the motives of a writer are:
There is no way that a linguist can actually reach inside the mind of the writer to determine what that writer intended. (p. 107)
There is no way that linguistic analysis can prove such attributions of a person's intentions. (p. 109)
The plaintiff's expert's use of expressions such as "must have," "they are affected," and "readers would" attribute results or behaviors [to the reader] that linguistic analysis simply cannot provide. (p. 111)
This is a surprisingly self-defying argument to hear from a person who is himself a forensic linguist. If it were really the case that linguistics has nothing to say about how a text works or what it reveals about the author, what is it doing in the courtroom in the first place?

The argument is also strange given that Shuy in the same chapter explains that he once had a courtroom disagreement with another linguist who "actually agreed with my conclusions but claimed that the field of linguistics could lead neither of us to such findings" (p. 98). To my ears, this sounds surprisingly close to saying that there is "no way that linguistic analysis can prove such attributions of a person's intentions."

The Flexibility of Forensic Linguistics

Further, when Shuy appears on the other side of a court case, he also seems to embrace a much more liberal approach to meaning:
Otherwise benign words and expressions, such as "made plans," "was alone," "secretly left the house," "went unanswered," "left town," and "living with," can convey meanings far beyond their usual dictionary senses, especially in the context of a broadcast about a murder. (p. 61–62)
But oddly, this is not the case with words like deny in the context of newspaper reporting on mob crime.

It seems that the conclusion we can draw is that linguistics either can or cannot say something about meaning, depending on whom its employer is on a given day. In the murder case (chapter 4), journalists are thus clever manipulators setting up snares for their helpless sources and listeners:
Most listeners are not very likely to notice the discourse framing of the broadcasts or that there was little attempt to clarify important ambiguities. (p. 68)
But in the corruption case (chapter 7), they have regained their agency, and the newspaper is liable only for explicit accusations, not innuendo:
… there is no such accusation in the articles, which present the facts about the relationship between the plaintiff and the local unions … The Plain Dealer claimed that the readers could draw whatever conclusions, if any, that these facts suggest to them. (p. 115)
Probably, the oscillation between these two poles of semantic theory is destined to go on as long as linguists continue to see meaning as a feature of words rather than situations.

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