Words Matter

Oct 13, 2022

In journalism school, approximately 3,423 years or so ago, I remember my professor railing at us when we were imprecise with words - especially those words that have specific meanings.

Not talking about phrases like “about scared me to death” (although Dr. Klein would certainly have preferred us to say someone was “startled”). That expression, he would explain, was a colloquialism, and it was permissible for a reporter’s usage because it was…pay attention here…a quotation.

Definitely not a description of a physical reality.

“You can no more be scared half to death,” he would say, “than you can be shot to life.”

He despised the expression “shot to death.” Dr. Klein knew you could be “gravely wounded” or “fatally wounded” or even “shot dead” but you could not be “shot to life.”

Here’s where I’m headed: it seems today’s media is incapable of accepting the simple fact that when the Supreme Court of the United States declines to grant a writ of certiorari that act neither affirms nor denies any legal issue being argued in the case.

Declining to hear a case has a single meaning: “Not hearing this one. Next.”

There could be another case is working through the federal system with the potential to overshadow the issues being argued in this particular case, but we don’t know.

In this instance. No means….no. Nothing more.

If/when a reporter says or writes that the “high court has declined to hear the case” and goes on to say that decision either “affirms” or “denies” the arguments in the case, you should immediately move on…they know not of what they speak.

The Supreme Court denying cert is no more an admission of anything than someone saying “no comment” when they’re asked to comment.

“No comment” isn’t invoking the Fifth Amendment (don’t even start me on that argument) to avoid incriminating themselves. No comment only means “I have nothing to say.”

Today, unfortunately, saying nothing is apparently subject to interpretation by the media.

Interpretation, however, is markedly different from translation.

Translation attaches no nuance to words. Fish in English is a pez in Spanish. It’s ribariti in Croata, and a brasileño in Portuguese. The word -alone- has a distinct meaning.

That’s why it matters when a reporter purports to report anything beyond the Supreme Court saying it isn’t going to hear the case when it denies a cert.

Unless the reporter has done the work to determine that another case -with a similar but possibly broader view of the matter is working through the court - anything they say is conjecture, not fact.

What you’ll seldom see reported is the impact of the rulings the Supreme Court does make. Especially when the decisions seem contrary to the wishes of the mainstream media. The Wall Street Journal this week has been a happy exception. A piece from Jacob Gershman details how the Court’s ruling against New York’s “longstanding strict limits on granting permits for carrying concealed handguns outside the home” was rippling through the lower courts.

He’s absolutely correct. Several lower courts have cited the ruling when striking down other gun regulations. Seems that shifting the focus from “present day government interests” to the nation’s “historical tradition of firearms regulation” has upset the proverbial apple cart for gun regulators.

To date, lower court rulings have either struck down or stayed potential regulations covering everything from the legality of concealed carry for 18-20 year olds to the federal disqualification of a defendant’s right to buy firearms. According to that ruling, there is no proven historical justification for disarming those indicted, but not yet convicted, or any crime.

Delaware’s newest gun law criminalizing possession or manufacturing of unserialized, homemade firearms, was also shot down. According to U.S. District Judge Maryellen Noreika, “regulations on so-called ‘ghost guns’ are likely unconstitutional.”

That new scrutiny, has also caused a New York ruling against the state’s proposed ban of concealed-carry permit holders from Times Square and other “crowded public spaces.” New York had deemed those “sensitive locations” off limits to otherwise lawfully armed residents. Despite a pair of century-plus laws banning the carrying of guns in fairs or markets, Judge Glenn T. Suddaby ruled that two statutes “do not make a tradition.”

New York’s newest requirement that concealed-carry applicants demonstrate “good moral character” was also found to be overly burdensome, giving officials to much subjective leeway to deny permits. Judge Suddaby also ruled that other requirements, including mandatory disclosure of former and current social-media accounts wasn’t acceptable.

Despite those rulings, the courts have remained steadfast in their upholding federal laws banning felons and unlawful drug users from legal firearms ownership. Felons, which may come as a surprise to some anti-gun groups, are in a different position from defendants.

“Felons,” the courts found, “have abused the rights of the people.” There is a longstanding tradition of exercising its right as a free society -to exclude from “the people” those who squander their rights for crimes and violence.

The movement through the courts seems tortuously slow at times, but there are still a number of big issues to be decided. Those include statewide bans on “assault weapons” in both California and Maryland. Those are, happily, “pending.”

We will, of course, keep you posted.

— Jim Shepherd