Author Archive | Prof. Elizabeth Thornburg, guest-blogging

Censorship as Marketing

At this time of year, my email inbox is full of “last chance for Christmas delivery” sales pitches, and so I’ve been thinking about what interests potential buyers in a product.  And having that in the back of my mind when turning to this blog took me straight to one of my favorite entries in Lawtalk:  The Unknown Stories Behind Familiar Legal Expressions: “Comstockery.”  The term–which signifies prudish, self-righteous censorship based on a desire for sexual purity–is named for nineteenth-century crusader Anthony Comstock, who successfully lobbied for enactment of the anti-obscenity law commonly known as the Comstock Act in 1873, got himself appointed two days later as a special postal agent to enforce the law, and by 1874 was already responsible for the seizure of 194,000 pictures and photographs; 14,200 stereopticon plates; 134,000 pounds of books; 60,300 “rubber articles” (condoms); and 5,500 sets of playing cards.  Two years before his death in 1915, he boasted that he had convicted thousands of people and driven fifteen to suicide.

Comstock is nevertheless a paradigmatic example of the marketing value of efforts at suppressing anything remotely sexual.  At least twice in his career his efforts at censorship famously promoted sales.  First up:  George Bernard Shaw.  After some of Shaw’s plays, including Man and Superman, were removed from the open shelves and put on a “restricted list” at New York’s public library, Shaw responded eagerly to a request for comment from a correspondent for the New York Times.  He concluded:  “I can promise the Comstockers that, startling as ‘Man and Superman’ may appear to them, it is the merest Sunday school tract compared with my later play . . . with which they will presently be confronted.”

Comstock rose to the bait and had the next Shaw play that was produced [...]

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Of Time and Lawtalk

Thanks so much to Eugene Volokh for the invitation to guest blog about Lawtalk:  Unknown Stories Behind Familiar Legal Expressions this week.  Working on the book was tons of fun (and a dramatic lesson in the amount of historical material now available online), and my co-authors and I are enjoying the opportunity to share what we’ve learned with those who are interested.  Today’s topic is time, both in the sense of the provenance of legal expressions and as a measuring stick for legal fees.

In many cases, we discovered that law-related expressions are much older than people generally believe, and older than the earliest cites in the Oxford English Dictionary.  For example, I initially bought into the myth that Los Angeles police chief William H. Parker coined the phrase thin blue line in the 1950s (thanks, Wikipedia).  Not true:  in its laudatory metaphorical form (referring to the police as a line protecting the citizenry from crime), we traced this play on “thin red line” (referring to red-coated British soldiers in the Crimean War) back to a speech given by the Bishop of Coventry to the annual meeting of supporters of the Birmingham Police Institute in 1900–and as a literal reference to lines of policemen, all the way back to 1855.

A different kind of surprise, though, was how comparatively new the expression billable hour is.  In fact, billable in this sense is even now absent from the OED; it has the word only as a legal term meaning “liable to be served with a bill; indictable,” and its only cite is from 1579. Billable as an accounting term meaning ‘something one can bill for’ seems well established by the turn of the twentieth century, although LexisNexis shows the earliest case law use of this version of billable in a [...]

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