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Full circle: general semantics and the law.

General semantics has for years been noted for its multi-disciplinary utility. Few, if any, sets of techniques or insights are as applicable to so many endeavors: from anthropology to zoology, from musicology to management, from poetry to psychiatry.

Of all the disciplines, or professions, that would surely find general semantics useful, one would suspect the law to be at the top of the list. The law is, after all, a profession of wordsmiths. Lawyers are, perhaps, our highest paid writers and editors - with the possible exception of the most highly paid songwriters and ad agency copywriters, or the few screenwriters and novelists given multimillion-dollar advances.

It is difficult to document the absence of something. But it is my impression from recollection that there have been relatively few articles written about the language of the law by general semanticists, or about general semantics by lawyers.

This issue of ETC offers readers one of each - a pair of articles that are both related, in their own way, to the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

It was nearly 45 years ago that my father, Wendell Johnson,(*) invited me to accompany him on a trip to Chicago during the Christmas holiday of my freshman year in college. He was to speak to a group of law professors attending a convention of the Association of American Law Schools. It was my first exposure to this organization, one that I would join a mere seven years later as a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

The title of his talk was "Reducing Misunderstandings in Trying to Reach Agreements," and it was later published by the University of Iowa College of Law under that title as the lead article in the Spring 1954 Iowa Law Review.

In 1981, 16 years after Dad's death in 1965, I began teaching at that law school in Iowa City. I'm still here in 1997.

One of my most distinguished colleagues is Professor Randall P. Bezanson. Randy has been Dean of the law school at Washington and Lee University, a Vice President of the University of Iowa, a law professor at both institutions, a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, and holder of a number of the honors bestowed on such an individual along the way.

One of the traditions at the Iowa College of Law is the (usually weekly) presentation by a faculty member of a "work in progress" to his and her colleagues in a faculty seminar. In what many characterized as one of the best presentations ever, Professor Bezanson talked about a paper he was working on in late 1996. This draft of a book-length law review article, titled "The Quality of First Amendment Speech," ultimately will be published in full by a major law review. I (and others) believe it is a very creative and original piece of work that will be a major contribution to constitutional jurisprudence.

What is being published in this issue of ETC is but a small excerpt from that longer article. It is the section entitled, "The 'Meaning' of First Amendment Speech." In the course of reading through the entire paper, however, I could not help but be struck by the extent to which it (and this excerpt) also represent a major contribution to the literature of general semantics - and in this relatively underdeveloped area of general semantics and the law.

At the same time, I was also reminded of the old story of the man who was so thrilled to discover that he had been speaking "prose" all his life.

Randall Bezanson is not a student of general semantics. And that makes this contribution of his to ETC all the more remarkable. You will not find the general semanticist's usual "dates" and "indexes" and other techniques in his piece. You will not find citations to the basic literature of the field.

What you will find in this brief excerpt from his full-length article is an extraordinary intellectual tour de force, the application of the wisdom of general semantics to the Supreme Court's confused opinions in "speech" cases.

And so we come full circle: an Iowa speech pathologist and general semanticist offering the tools of general semantics to lawyers in an article in the Iowa Law Review of 1954, and now an Iowa law professor (and former editor of the Iowa Law Review) applying them to First Amendment jurisprudence in an article in the ETC of 1997.

* The name, Wendell Johnson, will be known to most readers of ETC. For the benefit of those who do not know, he was one of four original founders of the International Society for General Semantics, served as its President, was the author of one of the classic presentations of general semantics (People in Quandaries), and a frequent contributor to ETC before his death in 1965. For more information see the "Wendell Johnson Memorial Web Page" at:

Nicholas Johnson, Wendell Johnson's son, is a former Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, author of How to Talk Back to Your Television Set, and a board member of the International Society for General Semantics. He currently teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law in Iowa City. His Web page can be found at:
COPYRIGHT 1997 Institute of General Semantics
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Johnson, Nicholas
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Jun 22, 1997
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