This course investigates the way that law treats verbal and visual signs. By sign is meant here the visual and verbal bearer of contentious meanings and/or of disputed cultural significance. Through the study of decided cases, the courses analyzes how verbal and visual signs encounter law's definitions, registration regimes, prohibition, censorship, or protection. Among the legal domains involved are: trademark and copyright law; employment and discrimination law; censorship, free speech and obscenity law; blasphemy; public order law; human rights law. The course focuses on the underlying legal, socio-political, and semiotic doctrines that are at play, but also the implicit or explicit theory of the sign, the understanding of how signs communicate, how the ownership of signs and images is understood, and how law assigns authorial and interpretative responsibility for meanings. Of particular interest is the relationship between sign and “para-sign”, that is, between an original sign and a sign that alludes to, suggests, parodies, or references indirectly the original.
The course will be divided into sections by topic (not all of which will be taught for each iteration): (i) names and marks (legal limits on the right to choose, registration regimes in relation to personal and corporate names, marks, titles, licence plates, domain names); (ii) art (art works and customs regulations, legal definitions of art; art works and forgery, e.g. artistic images of currency; art works and parody; art and taboo; song lyrics and taboo meanings); (iii) flags, insignia and symbols (laws against flag desecration; banned political symbols; triad society symbols; gang insignia); (iv) speech versus conduct (gestures; public order offences involving swearing, insulting language or behaviour; contempt of court; the definition of speech under the First Amendment); (v) clothing and hair-styles (e.g. employment law; sumptuary laws; contempt of court); (vi) cultural appropriation and identity (the commercial use of indigenous linguistic materials and cultural symbols); (vii) language in public spaces (regulations on signage; noise and nuisance; the definition of public); (viii) oath-taking, ritual, and symbolic speech.
- To describe what a sign is and identify the kind of signs that attract legal controversy
- To critically analyze a particular topic or decided case in terms of the underlying legal and semiotic issues
- To demonstrate analytical knowledge of legal regimes that control or protect signs
- To apply knowledge of individual cases to demonstrate an overarching awareness of the interconnections between sociocultural issues, semiotics and law
- To engage at a jurisprudential level with underlying issues of the ownership, responsibility, interpretation and control of signs
The course will employ a mixture of lecture and in-class exercises. The third hour will be used as required for smaller group discussion, exercises, and consultations.
The requirements are a mid-term essay (40%), and a final essay/project (60%).
Chafee, Zechariah (1941). Free Speech in the United States. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Cobley, Paul, ed. (2001) The Routledge Companion to Semiotics and Linguistics. London: Routledge.
Coombe, Rosemary (1998) The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties: Authorship, Appropriation, and the Law. Durham: Duke University Press.
Hake, Alana (2007) The States, a plate, and the First Amendment: the Choose Life Specialty license plate as government speech. Washington University Law Review 85: 409-456.
Kushner, Julia (2009). The right to control one’s name. UCLA Law Review 57: 313-364.
Lennon, Jo (2006) Laws against insult: history and legitimacy in Coleman v Power. Legal History 10: 239-258.
Lydiate, Henry (2012) What is art: a brief review of international judicial interpretations of art in the light of the UK Supreme Court's 2011 judgment in the Star Wars case: Lucasfilm Limited v. Ainsworth. Journal of International Media & Entertainment Law 4: 111-148.
Pace, Kimberly A. (1994). The Washington Redskins case and the doctrine of disparagement: how politically correct must a trademark be? Pepperdine Law Review 22: 7-57.
Richardson, Megan (2004) Trade marks and language. Sydney Law Review 26: 193-220.
Scafidi, Susan (2005) Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Schauer, Frederick (2015). On the distinction between speech and action. Emory Law Journal 65: 427-454.
Shumejda, Elizabeth (2014). The use of rap music lyrics as criminal evidence. Entertainment, Arts and Sports Law Journal (NYSBA) 25: 29-40.
Tebbe, Nelson (2018) Is a wedding cake speech? Cornell Law Forum 44: 16-19.
Tirosh, Yofi (2007) Adjudicating appearance: from identity to personhood. Yale Journal Law & Feminism 19: 49-124.
Wagner, Anne and Richard Sherwin, eds. (2014) Law, Culture and Visual Studies. Berlin: Springer.
Weschler, Lawrence (2000). Boggs: A Comedy of Values. University of Chicago Press.