Thursday, July 08, 2010

The meaning of "or"

Situation: A resident of the S.C. town of Awendaw sets up to video tape a Town Council meeting.

Several council members object and go fetch the town lawyer.

State freedom of information law reads (courtesy of the Sun-News story) that all or part of a meeting may be recorded "by means of a tape recorder or any other means of sonic or video reproduction" unless it's an executive session and so long as the recording does not actively interfere "with the conduct of the meeting."

Town lawyer Dwayne Green says his opinion is that "or" allows a public body to ban video taping as long as it allows audio. "Had the statute specified that any person may record a meeting by tape recorder and any other means including video, it would have specified a right to any means of recording."

Dwayne, baby, a little basic language and copy editing skill here. "Or" as used here is an inclusive term. If you can do A or B, it means you can do either one (or both, actually). It's why we don't need the ungainly "and/or" that lawyers seem to prize and that has turned into creeping crud in so much news copy.

If the language had been that the council could allow A or B, then, yes, I agree with you. But the law does not address the council's rights; it addresses the citizens' rights. And so they get to do A or B.

Jay Bender, a colleague at the University of South Carolina journalism school, media lawyer and a longtime friend, put it very nicely: "That's why people hate lawyers," Bender said, and "government lawyers in particular."

(Green said that because the law has never had a court test, he had to look to what other states had done. Bender, however, says the S.C. law is different and intends to give people wide latitude.)



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