Bad language in court / Schimpfwörter und Richter

Here’s an entry I never got round to publishing, because I didn’t get round to investigating the German situation.

Under the heading Taking no shit from judges, Mark Liberman at Language Log recently took up the topic of how judges express themselves when they need to quote words like shit and fuck.

He quotes an article in the New York Times on the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals of the Second Circuit that ‘fleeting expletives’ are OK on TV, but I couldn’t tell whether the following euphemisms came from the court or the journalist. I was also surprised that there was a reference to ‘circuit-court judges’ – was this an appeal from a circuit court? It looks to me as if we’ll have to wait for the opinion to be published to see what was actually said.

Adopting an argument made by lawyers for NBC, the judges then cited examples in which Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney had used the same language that would be penalized under the policy. Mr. Bush was caught on videotape last July using a common vulgarity that the commission finds objectionable in a conversation with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain. Three years ago, Mr. Cheney was widely reported to have muttered an angry obscene version of “get lost” to Senator Patrick Leahy on the floor of the United States Senate.

I notice that some feeds head this report H0ly Sh17, a new combination of characters for me.

I did some research in English reports. It’s easy to search the Court of Appeal decisions at BAILII. I looked at the civil cases, but some of those are appeals relating to criminal offences. I had the impression that in cases where the police are involved, it’s impossible to quote the larger British public verbatim today without using these words. When they are quoted in other contexts, I found cases where the word was quoted, but accompanied by an apology. Here’s a House of Lords debate (the parliament chamber, not the court):

Perhaps in relation to the discretionary law, I may instance what happened to me yesterday. As I was walking out of Charing Cross Underground into the little linear path nearby, which noble Lords will know, there was a young adult urinating quite openly against the gates leading into the park. I made the remark, “That’s going to leave a nasty smell.”, and he said, “Fuck you.”. I am sorry to use the word in this House, but it happens to be the commonest single word in the vocabulary of that age group, I fear. That was his response. I believe that he said it, first, out of shock that anyone should even take note of the act and, secondly, out of a kind of indignation that anyone should interfere with what he undoubtedly considered to be a perfectly reasonable and proper act. Therefore, I must confess to a certain disappointment that, yet again, we are in the process of deluding ourselves and the public that we shall achieve anything in a measure covering 63 pages of new law relating to anti-social behaviour. But I would love to think that we might.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

And here is a Court of Appeal civil case. The applicant received bad medical treatment on one occasion and on this basis refused to pay an invoice (which his insurance company would have met) for a longer period of time – a man of principle, but perhaps his hospital memories were retroactively coloured by the one occasion:

In the apparently colourful language of the evening, Mr Holcroft told this young doctor to “fuck off” and that he would rather die of renal failure than be murdered by his ill treatment. It was dramatic, perhaps overstating, but not uncharacteristic of the man whose company I have enjoyed over the last three quarters of an hour. The result was that Mr Holcroft was totally dissatisfied, and this is the important point with which he must begin to grapple, not only with the treatment meted out to him on that evening but also dissatisfied with the whole of the treatment he had received during the whole of the duration he was in the hospital’s care. He accordingly refused to sign any certificate of satisfaction with that treatment and, although he had the benefit of the Norwich insurance, he refused to pass the bill to the Norwich Union, but determined to show up the hospital for the bunch of incompetents that he now believes they are.

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