Ed. note: Today we’re pleased to present a guest post by John Carney. He’s the editor of our sibling site, DealBreaker, and a non-practicing attorney.
Please note that the views expressed in this post are those of John (and John alone). Unlike John, we HAVE met Dahlia Lithwick, and think she’s fabulous — one of the sharpest and funniest writers about the Supreme Court working today. We admire many members of the SCOTUS press corps — e.g., Jan Crawford Greenburg, Tony Mauro, Lyle Denniston — but we don’t know of another writer who marries insight and humor the way that Lithwick does. As you can see from our Facebook profile, we are proud members of the We Love Dahlia Lithwick group.
Okay, enough disclaimers. John has a different view — and since we value viewpoint diversity here at ATL, here it is. Enjoy.
By JOHN CARNEY
Slate has been running its usual end of term round-up, a back-and-forth between Dahlia Lithwick (at right) and Walter Dellinger. Except for Dellinger’s defense of political speech against the slippery opinion of Chief Justice John Roberts, it’s a deeply disappointing discussion. Lithwick, who I have never met, comes off as a deeply frivolous person.
It’s almost hard to write about Lithwick’s view of the school speech case, Morse v. Frederick, without sounding foolish. The case arose when a student unfurled a banner reading “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.” Lithwick chastises Roberts for reading this as “clearly advocacy of a ‘pro-drug’ message.”
“In Morse, Roberts goes to great lengths to insert meaning into the silliness of the words on the student banner. He insists the phrase ‘Bong Hits 4 Jesus’can be read as ‘celebrating drug use’; indeed to get there he needed only insert the imaginary words, ‘bong hits [are a good thing].’ When did we enter into the era of constitutional interpretation through inserting pretend words? The sign could have as easily been read to say ‘bong hits [will kill you],’” Lithwick writes.
The most difficult question raised by Lithwick here is whether she’s a liar or a fool. That sounds a bit harsh. But I can’t come come up with any other credible explanation for that paragraph. Anyone of normal intelligence understands that “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” is drug advocacy. The only question is whether it’s a command that would mean “Do Bong Hits For Jesus” or a confession meaning “I Do Bong Hits For Jesus” or even an offer, as in “I Have Bong Hits Available For Jesus.” In any case, it’s undoubtedly pro-drug.
Read the rest, after the jump.
Now Lithwick would probably accuse me of ‘inserting pretend words’ also. But we don’t need to insert pretend words to read and understand otherwise cryptic messages. We just understand them because they are clear. When I ask my assistant editor at DealBreaker, Bess Levin, “How are you?” and she answers “Fine” I don’t need to insert words to make sense of it. I understand that her one word sentence fragment actually means “I am fine.” Similarly, if I have to cancel a date with my girlfriend Nicole because I’m working late, and she ends the conversation with “Fine!”, I don’t need to insert words to understand what she means. Language often works like this, where otherwise cryptic and nonsensical messages that don’t conform to ordinary rules of spelling, usage or grammar are perfectly understandable. Is anyone confused about what those t-shirts reading “I (Heart Picture) New York” mean?
What’s surprising is why Lithwick thinks pretending to be an idiot is a good way to win an argument. I find it incredible that she actually is confused about the meaning of Bong Hits 4 Jesus. But she insists on denying the obvious meaning. To make matters worse, Dellinger chimes in and agrees with her that the court is overstepping it bounds by reading the banner as conveying a pro-drug message.
It would be far better to take on the issues of free speech and the war against drugs. Arguing that meaning doesn’t exist when it does is just foolishness.
A Supreme Court Conversation [Slate]