I am sitting in the first Lawyering session of the year, and the class is debating the definition of the word “vehicle.” Our professor has presented a hypothetical legal problem: Sally wants to ride her bicycle through Hemingway Park. She wants to know if she can do so without violating a statute that bans “all vehicles” from park land.
I do not see the problem. A bicycle is a vehicle, so of course, the answer is she can’t.
But then the professor distributes a court decision defining vehicles as “motorized devices used primarily for transportation,” and we launch into a discussion of whether a bike fits this definition. One classmate argues that bicycles are vehicles because the pedals are a kind of motor. Someone else rejects that point, explaining that a motor must produce electricity. Others focus their arguments on whether people mainly use bikes for transportation. This goes on for five minutes and ends in no clear resolution.
We then read a decision determining that a vehicle “has two wheels and produces a noise,” and the professor introduces another hypothetical case: Can Pat use her speed boat in one of the park’s lakes?
We are unsure whether a boat is a vehicle, and even less certain of the proper definition of “vehicle.” Must it have a motor? Be used for transportation? Have two wheels? Produce a noise? And what, for that matter, constitutes a “noise”? My head is spinning.
Now I am in my second year, and I realize that we were learning precision – to find and create fixed meanings for vague words. These days, I embrace and demand this kind of specificity: I cringe when I hear ambiguity on television, because I know that too often, the fate of the nation hinges on the definition of a single word. What is “torture”? What is “marriage”? What is “bipartisanship”?
That first day, the TA quoted George Orwell: “The worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them.” Nowhere, I realized, is this truer than in the law.