Now on The Atlantic: The corpus in the court

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On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled in FCC v. AT&T that corporations are not entitled to a right of "personal privacy," even if corporations can be construed as "persons." To reach this decision, they were aided by an amicus brief by Neal Goldfarb that presented corpus evidence on the types of nouns that the adjective "personal" typically modifies. Here on Language Log, Mark Liberman posted about the case on the day the decision was released, and now I have a piece for The Atlantic discussing the use of corpus analysis in the courtroom.

An excerpt:

Linguists have introduced a new wave of data-crunching methods to answer knotty questions about language use, and a decision handed down by the Supreme Court this week reveals that the legal world is taking notice. For too long, judges and attorneys have relied on scattershot, impressionistic evidence to back up linguistic claims, even though language is often central to judicial decision-making. New high-tech tools for analyzing common usage promise a welcome antidote, but there is a danger in expecting them to cut through the inherent slipperiness of words.

Read the rest here.


  1. Graeme said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 7:59 am

    Coming to this late, from far away. As a humble legal academic from a different sub discipline to this case, surely the answer to AT&T's claim lay not in ruminating on 'personal', but on the nature of privacy (within the context of the underlying Act, its purpose). And not with corpus or other literalist approaches to interpretation, but in the philosophy of 'privacy' and the policy area behind the Act.

    I can think of 'family privacy', but is there any other common or sensible qualifier of 'privacy' besides 'personal' or other synonyms for an individual? The very idea of 'organisational' privacy strikes me – and I'm no Assangist – as odd. Certainly we talk of privacy in certain quasi-institutional relationships (confessional, medical) but the right to privacy lies with the intimate, vulnerable-person-centered information disclosed there.

  2. Neal Goldfarb said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 11:44 pm

    Graeme, a few questions.

    First, what makes you think that using a corpus is a "literalist" approach to interpretation?

    Second, assuming you're correct in saying that the real issue in the case was "the nature of privacy" (and BTW my brief did present corpus evidence and data from Google searches on how the word privacy is used), what sources should be consulted to determine what the true nature of privacy is. Legislative history, presumably, but what else?

    And in particular, what sources should be consulted to determine the dividing line between the concept that we refer to as privacy and the related concept that we refer to as confidentiality, which clearly does apply to corporations?

    You say, "I can think of 'family privacy', but is there any other common or sensible qualifier of 'privacy' besides 'personal' or other synonyms for an individual?" That statement, it seems to me, shows that your sense of what privacy is (as opposed, implicitly, to what confidentiality is) is reflected in your linguistic intuitions, and probably influenced by the differing ways in which those two words are used within the language community(ies) that you inhabit. And I'd suggest that the same is true for all of us. If I'm right about that, then looking at the way that the words are used in real life is an entirely appropriate way to go about determining the boundaries of the underlying concepts. At a minimum, it's relevant evidence.

    (BTW, is a "humble legal academic" anything like a "simple country lawyer"? Just in case, I'm keeping my hand on my wallet.)

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