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Univ. of Toledo College of Law

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Chair Cox, Dirty Harry and Plain Language

Chair Cox on "plain language" (and an attempt at humor, presumably) from his speech at the Center for Plain Language Symposium:

Remember Clint Eastwood's classic role in Dirty Harry? ...One of the most famous scenes from the movie has the wounded bad guy trying to decide if he should draw his gun on Callahan, or if Callahan might have one shot left. Harry Callahan just squints at him, steely-eyed, and says:

"I know what you're thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I've kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a 44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clear off, you've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky?"

Not much question that Dirty Harry got his point across. One of the reasons that all of us, as moviegoers, admire Harry's delivery is that we know it's actually difficult to speak that directly. In fact, if those same lines of dialogue were to appear in your average prospectus or proxy statement, they'd probably sound more like this:

"I imagine that you are harboring significant uncertainty concerning the precise number of times that the hammer of this particular multishot firearm was cocked, its cylinder was advanced, the hammer was then released at the rear of its travel, the round in the chamber was fired, and the cylinder was then advanced once again — and specifically whether the exact figure is six, or possibly only five. Indeed, given the ambient commotion, my preoccupation with the need to make multiple, simultaneous and consequential decisions with alacrity, the surrounding high-decibel acoustic percussion, and the substantial ramifications of the firearm having already been discharged multiple times, I myself am experiencing difficulty in quantifying the discharges with exactitude. But inasmuch as the instrument in question, having been manufactured by NASDAQ-listed Smith & Wesson (stock symbol SWHC) with a horizontal barrel dimension of 8 3/8" to propel a projectile with a diameter of nearly 1/2" at a velocity of over 1,000 feet per second and an energy of more than 1,400 joules, is arguably the most powerful firearm in the world (the uncertainty being a function of the particular metric that one might choose, such as overall terminal ballistics, external ballistics, or some combination of other factors), you should be advised that were the projectile from this instrument to strike you in the region between the apex of the cranium and the base of the lower mandible, it would completely sever this entire portion of your anatomy, and in addition transport it a considerable distance from its original location. As a result, it is appropriate that you pursue a specific and directed line of inquiry and self-examination: viz., in view of all the facts and circumstances, and giving due weight to the relevant risk factors, is it your considered judgment that you are more likely than not to be relatively fortunate?”

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/securities/2007/10/chair-cox-dirty.html

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