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Word Wars

I respect language and the meaning of words. As a reader, this respect helps me to navigate through the nuances of human understanding and expression as they appear in print. As a lawyer, it helps me understand what the law is, how to comply with it or how to change it. I see it as a profound act of disrespect for both law and language when my fellow members of the bar, who should know better, forcefully assert meanings to words they cannot possibly believe themselves and do so in hopes of snookering the rest of us.

Politicians are very good at this. I remember in the 1980s when we were told ketchup was a vegetable. Lately we've been given a new definition of "torture" that renders the word meaningless and angers the world. But earlier this year we in the non-profit sector won a little skirmish in the language war when a New Hampshire county court judge restored a tax exemption to a charity simply by ruling that the terms "general public" and "member" have their obvious meanings.

The charity is the world-renown MacDowell Colony, located in Peter-borough, N.H. It had enjoyed nearly a century of exemption from property taxes until 2005 when the town claimed the artist colony no longer satisfied state charity law requirements because it chose to benefit its "members" rather than the "general public."

This is where the town lawyers decided to engage in a bit of sophistry that would have us believe at least three incredible things. One, each of the many artists from around the country who came to visit MacDowell Colony automatically became a member, in the statutory sense, of the charity. Two, because the artists were members, none of MacDowell Colony's activities on behalf of the arts had any benefit whatsoever to the general public because only the artists benefited. And three, because the charity itself does not produce art, it is not serving a public good.

As the town lawyers drafted their court papers they must have believed--with straight faces--that an artificial person known as a non-profit corporation had the capacity to wield a paintbrush, compose a symphony or write the next great American novel.

They also must have believed that when Thornton Wilder and Aaron Copeland visited MacDowell Colony (as they did), the resulting play "Our Town" and the ballet score "Appalachian Spring" disappeared into thin air, without having any effect on anybody in our society at any time whatsoever. They must have truly believed that the only people to benefit from these great works of stagecraft and music were the artists themselves--and even then only as dues-paying enrolled members of The MacDowell Colony Inc.

They must have been certain in their legally trained minds that nobody else, including me, a 16-year-old bit player in my high school's production of "Our Town," was ever affected, influenced, inspired, motivated, educated, entertained or anything else at all by these widely acclaimed works of art.

But Superior Court Judge Gillian Abramson must not have gone to the same law school as these other lawyers. She saw through their contorted interpretations of plain meanings.

She swept them away with pure common sense and the sensible rule of statutory construction that says a legislative purpose is not to be "thwarted by a strained, over-technical and unnecessary" interpretation of words. Even so, it took more than a year to get a court decision to make these simple points, and to thwart future like attempts. And the good judge had to use up 22 pages filled with straightforward legal prose to do it.

I wrote about this case last year, and I am pleased at the outcome for the sake of our profession and its most important tool--the words that give effect to the rule of law. The merit of the town's case is a different issue, and it may be taken up with an appeal. If it is, I hope the town's legal arguments will pass the laugh-out-loud test.

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Bruce Collins is the corporate vice president and general counsel of ?? 1/2

C-SPAN, based in Washington, D.C.

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Bruce D. Collins

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