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Annual Law and Literature Seminar to Explore Orwell’s 1984

Washington and Lee University School of Law will host the 2014 Law and Literature Seminar on Nov. 7-8. Now in its 22nd year, the seminar will examine George Orwell’s 1984. In this program, participants will examine Orwell’s novel and discuss its many implications for our current ideas of law, freedom, privacy, centralized power, democracy, and the power of literature.

The program is co-sponsored with the W&L Alumni College program. The seminar has been approved for two hours of CLE ethics credit and is open to anyone interested in law and literature.

Orwell’s classic novel has become the very model of a dystopian vision. His portrayal of a future world oppressed by omnipresent surveillance and by an omnipotent State intent on suppressing individual liberty while it wages constant yet controlled warfare has haunted our notions of big government since its original publication in 1949.

Law professor Margaret Hu, who will help lead the discussion, says that 1984 has never been more relevant in law and policy debates surrounding mass surveillance technologies, particularly given the Snowden disclosures on the depth and breadth of government invasions into private data.

“In the recent Supreme Court case US v Jones, which dealt with the constitutionality of warrantless GPS tracking, 1984 was mentioned at least six times during oral argument,” says Hu. “The Supreme Court seemed to imply there was an Orwell baseline standard that could guide an understanding of the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. In other words, the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures could be better understood in light of the potential Orwellian consequences of 24/7 ubiquitous and suspicion-less tracking technologies.”

Hu says some people think 1984 is no longer useful because the threat of totalitarianism and fascism seems to be diminished and that new surveillance technologies do not seem to be centralized by modern governments. However, she argues that the real value of the book is that it challenges readers to place a premium on human autonomy and individualism as core pillars of democracy.

“The point of Orwell’s novel was not to depict an accurate futurist vision—I don’t see it as part of the science fiction genre,” says Hu. “It was, I believe, intended to help preserve a vision of democracy. This vision of democracy has endured for over 65 years since the novel’s publication in 1949, and it is the same vision shared by our founding fathers. Biographers have noted that Orwell begins his first sentence of 1984 with a reference to the American Revolution and ends the novel with a passage from the Declaration of Independence.”

In addition to Hu, the program will be led by W&L law professor Brian Murchison, Villanova law professor Dave Caudill, and W&L English professor Marc Conner.