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HLS Graduate Explores Discriminatory History Of Popularly Cited Legal Terms

By Caroline S. Engelmayer and Lucy Wang, Contributing Writers

Kendra K. Albert, an affiliate of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, urged audience members at a Harvard Law School event Tuesday to examine critically the use of legal terminology in casual settings outside the court of law.

Albert defined these “legal talismans” as “a legal term of art, out of place, invoked to make or justify substantive decisions that do not involve formal legal processes.”

Albert, a 2016 Law School graduate, cited free speech and defamation as two examples of terms that individuals and organizations frequently cite outside legal contexts to defend their non-legal decisions. They added that the use of "legal talismans" leads individuals to lose sight of the often discriminatory history of the laws they are casually referencing.

“Defamation’s gorgeous traditional design hides deeply sexist, racist, and whorephobic, which means ‘anti-sex worker,’ connotations,” Albert said.

Albert, who uses the gender pronoun "they," explained that, historically, laws have criminalized calling a woman an adulterer, a straight person gay, and a white person black as defamation.

According to Albert, when individuals casually reference these legal principles now, they are unaware of these concepts’ prejudicial histories.

“The law is not some neutral force that we can reach out to and we can pull into our terms of service or our online spaces without bringing with it its long, long history of oppressing the oppressed,” Albert said.

“The power of the words is what makes them dangerous,” they said. “The fact that [these terms] feel neutral is what means that we should give them a second look.”

Anne Bellon, a visiting PhD student, praised Albert’s efforts to expose biases that are associated with commonly cited legal principles.

“I really liked when [Albert] started to unpack all these cultural meanings behind the terms ‘defamation’ or even ‘free speech,’ that there was a sexist bias, a racist bias behind those legal terms that you use constantly,” Bellon said.

Ron Newman, another member of the audience, liked Albert’s explanation of the history of defamation and free speech law.

“[The presentation] peeled back the history behind terms that we use everyday without really thinking about what they mean and where they came from,” he said.

Prior to diving into the history of "legal talismans," Albert expressed support for the ongoing strike by Harvard University Dining Services workers.

“I want to just take a moment to express solidarity with the folks who are protesting outside,” Albert said. “It’s important to me to make sure that folks know that even though I’m in here giving a talk instead of standing outside with them, I stand in solidarity with them.”

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