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Curses!

MCLA Professor on language, censorship


02/10/2010

Psychology professor Timothy Jay, Ph.D., not only edifies his students, his opinion is sought throughout the nation.

An expert in language and censorship, human communication and perception, and cognitive psychology, Jay's opinion recently was part of the Fox vs. Federal Communications Commission case in the 2nd Circuit Court. The case also was in front of the United States Supreme Court, in an attempt to determine the scope of "indecency" rulings offered by the FCC.

In addition, Jay has worked with several television companies and advertising consultants to determine the limits to speech on TV and in ads, and for a consumer products corporation to determine how to advertise and market feminine hygiene products. In November, he was quoted in a New York Times article on the increased use of vulgar language on prime-time broadcast television.

 His involvement in the Fox vs. FCC case came about after he invited First Amendment lawyer Marge Hein to come to MCLA to speak to his censorship class.

"We became interested in each other's work from then on," Jay explains. "She asked me to write an opinion about indecency that would be included in their (Fox et al) petition to the 2nd Court of Appeals. Marge was aware that I had written a similar opinion for a case involving public radio broadcasting in the Chicago area. So, I sent her my opinion of the language in the high profile cases involving indecent language and that opinion was included in the Fox vs. FCC brief. I demonstrated that many uses of the 'F' word and the 'S' word are not sexual or excretory references, as the FCC had claimed."

At the College since 1976, Jay is particularly keen on how emotion and culture influence the way we think and talk - something he says traditional cognitive psychologists tend to be less interested in.

His attention in language and "taboo" words stemmed from a deep interest in comedy and film when he was in high school. "I was fascinated by people like WC Fields, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Mae West and Moms Mabley - what made them so funny and how they bent the rules of language to do their work," Jay explains.

Another case Jay worked on involved a university student in another state who was being harassed in public and over the phone by one of her professors. "I helped out early in the case to determine that his speech did constitute sexual harassment," he says. "On the other hand, a case in California involved a company executive who was accused of harassing some of his staff at work and in other social settings. I wrote an opinion that by the nature of their everyday workplace speech where all of these people met, pretty much everyone used offensive language on a daily basis and the manager's language was not so extraordinary as to constitute harassment."

In recent years, Jay says he's had the pleasure of training students in language research that have moved on to prestigious graduate schools. They include Brendan Gaesser '07 at Harvard University and Kristin Janschewitz '04 at UCLA.

Jay is a recipient of the prestigious G. Stanley Hall Award from the American Psychological Association for Excellence in Undergraduate Education. His books include "Cursing in America: A Psycholinguistic Study of Dirty Language in the Courts, in the Movies, in the Schoolyards and on the Streets," "Why We Curse" and "Cursing in America."