The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

Justice Breyer's opinion in the FUCT Trademark Case and the Neurology of Language


Penn Linguistics Prof. Mark Liberman has an interesting Language Log post expressing doubt about one aspect of Justice Breyer's approach in his Iancu v. Brunetti dissent. Here's an excerpt from the opening:

Justice Stephen Breyer's opinion, "concurring in part and dissenting in part", cites neurological evidence for what might be a constitutionally defensible form of "linguistic regulation" [emphasis added]:

"[S]cientific evidence suggests that certain highly vulgar words have a physiological and emotional impact that makes them different in kind from most other words. See M. Mohr, Holy S***: A Brief History of Swearing 252 (2013) (Mohr) (noting the 'emotional impact' of certain profane words that 'excite the lower-brain circuitry responsible for emotion,' resulting in 'electrical impulses that can be measured in the skin'). These vulgar words originate in a different part of our brains than most other words. Id., at 250. And these types of swear words tend to attract more attention and are harder to forget than other words." …

Mohr indeed tells us on p. 250 that

"Scientists have found that swearing most likely originates in the right hemisphere of the brain, and within that half, in the 'primitive' part of the brain, the limbic system. The right half of the brain [which] is responsible for nonpropositional or automatic speech, which includes greetings, conventional expressions such as 'not at all,' counting, song lyrics, and swearwords. Propositional speech—words strung together in syntactically correct forms to create an original meaning—occurs in the left hemisphere."

But the evidence for this conclusion is weak, in my opinion. It seems to consist (almost?) entirely in the observation that when the dominant (usually left) hemisphere is out of commission, for whatever reason, the right hemisphere has limited abilities to initiate speech, including some cussing among other things….

This tells us that the non-dominant hemisphere can usually say only a few stereotyped and overlearned things, and those badly. It doesn't tell us that the right hemisphere is in control when someone with an intact brain produces a filled pause like "um", counts to three, or cusses — the fact that the non-dominant hemisphere can cuss doesn't mean that the dominant hemisphere can't.

Click here to read the whole post.