The Embattled First Amendment

The Supreme Court is interpreting free speech in new ways that threaten our democracy

Photo-illustration by David Herbick
Photo-illustration by David Herbick


Can free speech wreck the American experiment? The question at first seems crazy: Free speech is almost universally regarded as the heartbeat of democracy.

In this year’s State of the Union, for example, President Obama, extolling American values as a pillar of our leadership around the world, put protecting free speech on his short list of practices that set the United States apart. Coming soon after the slayings in Paris at Charlie Hebdo, the weekly that has mercilessly mocked Islam and so much else, the affirmation of free speech brought to mind Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s view that “we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe.” He later added, “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

In 1971, the Supreme Court relied on that principle to overturn the conviction of a young man who, in the Los Angeles Municipal Courthouse, had worn a jacket with “Fuck the Draft” on the back. The words expressed his strong opposition to Vietnam and the draft. In the Court’s majority opinion, Justice John M. Harlan wrote that “while the particular four-letter word being litigated here is perhaps more distasteful than most others of its genre, it is nevertheless often true that one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.”

Indirectly, the Supreme Court supported loathsome free expression in 1978 when it let stand the ruling of a federal appeals court that said members of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party of America had the right to march in uniforms with swastikas on armbands, through Skokie, Illinois. Forty thousand Jews—5,000 of them Holocaust survivors—lived in the village of 70,000.

In 1992, the Court struck down the Bias-Motivated Crime Ordinance of St. Paul, Minnesota, which made it a misdemeanor to put on public or private property a symbol like “a burning cross or Nazi swastika” that “arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender.” Known as a hate-speech law, and intended to punish and thus discourage abhorrent speech, it was similar to ones passed by the federal government and more than half the states. In this case, a group of teenagers who had burned a cross in the yard of a black family had been prosecuted under the ordinance. The law considered the cross burning expressive conduct and therefore speech. Justice Antonin Scalia explained that the St. Paul ordinance was unconstitutional because it wasn’t neutral: it punished hate speech about race and color, for example, but permitted by omission “abusive invective” about “political affiliation, union membership, or homosexuality.” His opinion closed, “Let there be no mistake about our belief that burning a cross in someone’s front yard is reprehensible. But St. Paul has sufficient means at its disposal to prevent such behavior without adding the First Amendment to the fire.”

The most recent Supreme Court ruling to affirm Justice Holmes’s principle came in 2011. The Court held that the First Amendment protected even brutishly hateful speech at a protest about a military funeral—including signs with messages like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”—as long as the demonstration was carried out where police said it could be. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote, “Such speech cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt.”

American constitutional law regards free speech as a requirement for preserving and protecting competing values of equality, dignity, diversity, and tolerance. Anthony Lewis, the author of Gideon’s Trumpet and a champion of free speech, wrote in 2007, “Americans are freer to think what we will and say what we think than any other people, and freer today than in the past.” He went on, “Hateful and shocking expression, political or artistic, is almost all free to enter the marketplace of ideas.”

However sacred the idea of free speech remains for us today, we should recognize that its most fervent champions are not standing up for mistrusted outliers, such as Holmes had in mind, or for the dispossessed and powerless. Today’s advocates do the bidding of insiders—the super-rich and the ultra-powerful, the airline, drug, petroleum, and tobacco industries, all the winners in America’s winner-take-all society. In a country where the gap between the haves and have-nots has grown so extreme that both political parties now pay lip service to populism, the haves have seized free speech as their cause—and their shield.

The landmark Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case in 2010, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the government may not ban so-called independent spending by corporations in elections, is often described as being about campaign finance law, since it dealt with a statute intended to boost confidence in the political system by reducing the role of big money in elections. But to the justices in the majority (Roberts, Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel A. Alito Jr.), the case was about free speech. The principle, Kennedy wrote, is that “the Government lacks the power to restrict political speech based on the speaker’s corporate identity.” To mark the fifth anniversary of the Citizens United ruling, public-interest organizations issued reports that, as a result of it, corporations, unions, and individuals have spent more than a billion dollars on political campaigns, with the Center for Responsive Politics estimating that contributions from business dwarf those from labor by about 15-to-one.

Citizens United was about political speech, but it was built on principles established for commercial speech—the kind of solicitation that a business makes to potential customers. The Supreme Court initially treated commercial speech as having less importance than political speech. But the protection of commercial speech is now a formidable tool for American enterprise—and Citizens United shows how far the Court has taken the concept.

In 1976, in a case about whether pharmacists had the right to advertise prices for prescription drugs, the Supreme Court ruled for the first time that the First Amendment covers commercial speech. Unless an ad for a drug is false or misleading or promotes something illegal, the Court held, government must let a business make its pitch and trust that consumers will make good use of the information.

The new ruling gave commercial speech enough importance to come under the First Amendment’s coverage, but Justice Harry Blackmun noted “common sense differences” between commercial and political speech and said that it was “less necessary to tolerate inaccurate statements” in commercial speech because of its lower political and social value. The ruling seemed to strike a balance between the interest of a business in touting its lower prices and the interest of the government in ensuring that commercial information flows, as Blackmun put it, “cleanly as well as freely.”

For the past decade, however, corporations have used the idea of commercial speech as a basis for sweeping claims about what the First Amendment entitles them to. With it, they have persuaded courts to strike down a broad range of well-founded regulations, from health warnings on cigarette packs to bans against pharmacies selling data about prescriptions for marketing. Spirit Airlines, joined by other carriers, argued that the government violated its First Amendment rights by requiring it to prominently list the total price of a ticket, to avoid confusing customers with separate lists of the base fare, taxes, and other charges. Reflecting the new libertarian outlook of businesses about free speech, Spirit insisted it had a right to tell its customers about “the huge tax burden that the federal government imposes on air travel.” The federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., ruled against the airlines, by two to one, but the dissent embraced their libertarian argument: “if discourse regarding these charges results in the government lessening the financial burden it imposes, airfares would become more affordable and people would fly more often.”

The decision in Citizens United was even more aggressive. It took a central concept of the Court’s rulings in commercial speech cases and twisted it drastically, viewing the matter not from the viewpoint of the consumer—its original intention—but from the viewpoint of the corporation.

In his 2014 book Citizens Divided, Yale Law School’s dean, Robert C. Post, who specializes in the First Amendment, explained what the Court got wrong: “the speech of an ordinary commercial corporation possesses constitutional value only because it provides information to auditors”—that is, it provides consumers with truthful information by removing government restrictions that kept them from getting it. Or so the Court said four decades ago, when it extended First Amendment coverage to commercial speech.

President Obama invoked the value of free speech as if it were beyond dispute in this country and the American conception of it a model for other countries where the value is angrily contested. But a lot about free speech in the United States is now intensely disputed: what it is for, who and what it protects and why, and whether it is the most important right in the Bill of Rights or must yield to other fundamental values.

Even Justice Holmes’s idea that the First Amendment should protect most forms of free expression regarded as offensive or hateful has come under attack in recent years. The Supreme Court has never said that the First Amendment protects obscene materials, but it has worked hard to distinguish and expand its definition of what is not obscene and thus warrants protection. That definition now includes anything that a jury deems to have “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

In the past generation, however, scholars, led by the University of Michigan feminist law professor Catharine A. MacKinnon, have shifted their attention from what the literary historian Kevin Birmingham calls “the power of all words”—including X-rated words—“to hash out the truth,” to the harm caused by obscene words, pictures, and other materials. In her 1993 book ironically titled Only Words, MacKinnon argued that pornography is neither “free” nor “speech” because it leads to violence against women and that hate speech in the guise of denigration of women is a form of intimidation as well as subordination, of terrorism as well as discrimination. The concern of the law, to MacKinnon, should be what speech does, not what it says. The “speech” of pornography, sexual harassment, and sexual hate exercises the power of men over women. To think otherwise, she wrote, is to allow the First Amendment to promote a kind of inequality that the Fourteenth Amendment, with its equal protection clause, was designed to end.

A half-century ago, in the heyday of the civil rights movement and its quest for racial equality, the movement sought to extend coverage of the First Amendment to people supporting the cause. In case after case, the Supreme Court recognized the basic tools of the movement—marches, demonstrations, picketing, even litigation in court—as forms of speech covered by the amendment.

In recent years, however, some influential scholars have shifted their attention to the harm caused by racist hate speech—to Words That Wound, as the legal scholars Mari J. Matsuda, Charles R. Lawrence III, Richard Delgado, and Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw called it in the title of their essay collection. They choose equality over liberty, fair speech over free speech. Relying on the principle of equality, they argue that racist speech is intrinsically harmful because it is wrong at its core. They argue that the ridicule to which it subjects minorities harms them as a group by holding them in an inferior social position, and as individuals by isolating and humiliating them. In addition, Lawrence argues, it “infects, skews, and disables” the marketplace of ideas, whose vitality Justice Holmes regarded as essential to American governance. Holmes advised “that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”

The arguments about sexist and racist hate speech have prevailed at hundreds of colleges and universities, which have codes banning speech that offends because of what it says about sex or race. Since 1999, an organization called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education—FIRE—has scrutinized the disciplinary policies at colleges and universities. It now reports that, of the 427 institutions studied, 59 percent have codes that “seriously infringe upon students’ speech rights,” though many institutions vigorously dispute that. FIRE has brought a series of successful lawsuits against public institutions, which are covered by the First Amendment and must uphold the free-speech rights of their faculty and students. Private institutions are not covered by the First Amendment and can adopt speech codes, but that doesn’t make them immune from FIRE’s vigilance. It calls them out for hypocrisy, because they claim to be bastions of academic freedom where all viewpoints can be expressed, whereas their speech codes are proof that they aren’t.

FIRE and its supporters are among today’s most ardent champions of free speech, as “a fundamental American freedom and a human right.” They link arms with supporters of Citizens United and in commercial speech cases led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which describes itself as “representing the interests of more than 3 million businesses.” Many liberals believe in free speech, of course, even if the speech codes and the attacks on racist and sexist speech come primarily from the left: part of the First Amendment’s charisma is its appeal to people across the legal and political spectrum. Still, the anti-speech-code movement and the pro-corporate-speech movement are conservative-led and make no bones about their political intentions.

James Madison drafted the First Amendment, with the primary goals of empowering citizens to express their views about their representatives in government and giving them the freedom to criticize the government and call for changes in it without fear. From the outset, most scholars say, there was broad agreement about the integral relationship between free speech and democratic self-government. But there was disagreement about what, exactly, that was supposed to be. The Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Leonard Levy, in 1960, documented that the First Amendment was not meant to abolish the crime of seditious libel—speech that criticizes the government even if the criticism is true. Levy’s point was that free speech meant being able to air criticism, but not being safe from sanction for doing that. Others have since concurred that “the freedom of speech” refers to freedom from prior restraint. The First Amendment protected against a government order blocking publication of an antigovernment pamphlet, but not against a criminal penalty for publishing it.


Most accounts of free speech in the founding period end up focusing on the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which made seditious libel a crime punishable by imprisonment. In the three years before the acts were nullified, the government used them to convict and either fine or imprison dozens of people, including newspaper editors such as U.S. Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont, the first person imprisoned under the Sedition Act, for upbraiding President John Adams for “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and self avarice.”

This episode began what the University of Chicago’s Geoffrey R. Stone in Perilous Times called our “long and unfortunate history of overreacting to the dangers of wartime.” That happened during the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, so that judges couldn’t review the legal basis for arresting and detaining people who criticized the president’s administration. It has also happened since 9/11, with the indiscriminate monitoring of American citizens’ communications without search warrants and a long list of other ways in which national security has trumped liberty.

In his 1997 book Free Speech in Its Forgotten Years, the University of Texas’s David Rabban begins,

Most scholars divide the history of free speech in the United States into three major periods: (1) from the framing of the Constitution through the prosecutions under the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798; (2) from roughly 1800 until World War I; and (3) from the passage of the Espionage Act of 1917 until the present. They assume intense debate and activity over the meaning of free speech during the first period, negligible judicial and rare general attention to free speech issues during the second period, and the creation of the modern First Amendment during the third period.

Rabban’s contribution was to fill in the story of the period between the Civil War and World War I, when “libertarian radicals”—anarchists, advocates of free love, socialists, and others—regarded free speech as a right of individual autonomy and a basis for, among other things, improving the lives of women. Judges, in particular justices on the Supreme Court, almost universally rejected those claims. Many relied on the 18th-century English jurist William Blackstone’s idea that it is permissible to punish speech that has a tendency to harm the public welfare, shorthanded as “a bad tendency.”

Justice Holmes was the most prominent jurist to do that. In the 1907 case of Thomas Patterson, a U.S. senator from Colorado who owned and edited two Denver newspapers, Holmes wrote an opinion citing Blackstone’s Commentaries and relying on the bad-tendency standard to uphold the conviction and the fining of the senator for criminal contempt. Patterson’s newspapers had published editorials, letters, and a cartoon intended to embarrass the Colorado Supreme Court. The state attorney general went after him on behalf of the state court and won.

Holmes was the first member of the Supreme Court to propose a philosophy of free speech in one of his judicial opinions, presenting his view about the marketplace of ideas in dissenting opinions starting in 1919. His outlook was famously pessimistic and skeptical, a philosophy that even extended to the likelihood of finding the truth. He thought the marketplace of ideas would force people to recognize falsehoods—misplaced fears, for example—that could lead to the suppression of speech.

This concept represented a startling rejection of Holmes’s previous view on free speech. As Thomas Healy described in The Great Dissent, his account of how Holmes changed his mind at the age of 78, it was “not just a personal transformation but the start of a national transformation as well,” with Holmes giving “birth to the modern era of the First Amendment.” The law as it is interpreted is dramatically different from what the words about it in the First Amendment suggest it might be. The free speech clause says, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech,” but the word Congress is interpreted to mean government in general, whether national, state, or local; legislative, executive, or judicial. The clause sounds unconditional—the government “shall make no law”—but the words are not interpreted that broadly either.

Nothing in the text or history of the amendment says exactly what the freedom of speech means—or abridging, for that matter. The Supreme Court has explicitly identified five categories of speech that the First Amendment doesn’t cover: lewd, obscene, profane, and libelous expressions, plus face-to-face insults that trigger a violent response, known as “fighting words.” Ronald K. L. Collins of the University of Washington has counted “at least 43 other additional types of unprotected expression,” ranging from blackmail and bribery to perjury and harassment in the workplace; from plagiarism and child pornography to some kinds of panhandling; from telemarketing to lying to government officials. And free speech in public schools, courtrooms, prisons, the military, and other public institutions may be limited—from the government’s viewpoint, to help them function effectively.

Rather than developing a unified theory about free speech, the Supreme Court has taken an issue-by-issue approach, explains Geoffrey Stone. The Court has been mindful of three recurring problems that the law must guard against: the chilling effect, the pretext effect, and the crisis effect. An example of the chilling effect would be a local law that makes it illegal to march in protest. Since the benefit to an individual from joining the march is usually less than the cost of being jailed if he or she marches, “people are easily deterred from exercising their freedom of speech” and government can “silence its critics” and “dominate and manipulate public debate,” as Stone puts it. The Supreme Court has shaped major rules about free speech to avoid chilling effects.

It did that dramatically in New York Times v. Sullivan, the landmark 1964 holding that “the Constitution accords citizens and press an unconditional freedom to criticize official conduct.” Criticism of a public official can be punished as libel only if a court finds that the critic knew, or suspected, that what he or she said was false.

In the pretext effect, Stone writes, officials often defend limits on speech “on grounds quite different from their real motivations for the suppression,” when they are “sorely tempted to silence dissent in order to insulate themselves from criticism and preserve their own authority.” In Justice Elena Kagan’s best-known piece of legal scholarship done before she went on the Supreme Court, she wrote that “the application of First Amendment law is best understood and most readily explained as a kind of motive-hunting.” In the case about St. Paul’s hate-speech law, Kagan said, the Supreme Court understood the city’s “motive as purely censorial—a simple desire to blot out ideas of which the government or a majority of its citizens disapproved” and the majority rejected that “impermissible purpose.”

The crisis effect comes into play when the United States is threatened or its leaders feel vulnerable. When fear is a major factor in shaping public policy, then “government officials tend to panic, to grow desperately intolerant, and to rush headlong to suppress speech they can demonize as dangerous, subversive, disloyal, or unpatriotic,” Stone writes. The Pentagon Papers case is the classic example of the Supreme Court’s providing a check against that suppression. During the height of the Vietnam War, the U.S. government tried to stop The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other newspapers from publishing excerpts based on official documents showing that the government had relied on secrecy to hide from the American people the extent of the country’s intervention and failure in the war. The Supreme Court ruled that the government had not met the very high standard necessary to keep the newspapers from publishing their accounts.

The Court made that ruling only seven years after the Sullivan case, the most important Supreme Court decision about free speech. Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote for the Court that “the central meaning of the First Amendment” is what the free-speech scholar Harry Kalven Jr. distilled to this: “political freedom ends when government can use its powers and its courts to silence its critics.” For Kalven, the amendment’s protection of free speech is even stronger than the rule of law the Court stated in that case. It is a deep American tradition, forged by experience, reflecting trial and error, and anchored in the conviction that even when an opinion is as extreme as those expressed in hate speech, the most fruitful response is to explain why that speech is wrong.

Many free-speech principles were developed in cases brought on behalf of pacifists, union members, civil rights and antiwar protesters, and many other kinds of outsiders. New York University’s Burt Neuborne explains, “Since speech as an agent of change appeared to be the principal beneficiary of the First Amendment, and since change was the byword of the left, vigorous protection of freedom of speech and association fit comfortably into the left’s agenda for much of the century.”

A quarter century ago, however, Yale Law School’s Jack Balkin warned that liberals’ free speech victories were likely to be of greater benefit to the status quo and, as a result, to conservative causes. He pointed out that “guarantees of formal liberty and formal equality generally favor those groups in society that are already the most powerful.” The idea that Justice Holmes identified as the heart of free speech—freedom from censorship based on the speech’s substance—is hallowed in American law, but through government limitations on the time, place, and manner of protests imposed in the name of public safety, Balkin pointed out, speech has often been muffled.

Frederick Schauer of the University of Virginia agreed with Balkin about the rightward ideological drift. Schauer set himself the task of exploring whether the “free speech principle, as a question of political philosophy,” is more congruent with conservative views than liberal ones. He concluded that the answer is yes. To persuade many people to do something, whether to vote for a candidate or to buy a product, speech is rarely free since advertising, access to the media, and other means of communication are often expensive. In the marketplace of ideas, in other words, the greater your resources, the likelier your success, just as in the marketplace of goods and services.

Schauer also gathered evidence about a related phenomenon he called “First Amendment opportunism,” when the principle of free speech is “pressed into service for tasks on the periphery of its central purposes.” Commercial speech is a prime example. The 1976 case about whether pharmacists had the right to advertise the price of prescription drugs, Schauer explained, “had little to do with freedom of speech and much to do with straight economic liberty.”

The purposes of free speech have been to help American society develop ideas it needs to function effectively through the marketplace of ideas; to provide the American people the information, opinion, and opportunity to speak necessary for self-governance in a democracy; and to allow individuals to fulfill themselves by expressing beliefs and opinions as part of developing their mind and character. Other purposes can be attributed to free speech as well, including the promotion and teaching of tolerance, the provision of a safety valve for venting anger and discussing grievances, and the correction of the economic market and the political system, since both undervalue information as a public good that people use without having to pay for it.

But none of these purposes explains every major decision about freedom of speech, and the connections between these rationales and federal court decisions have sometimes been strained. The upshot, Yale’s Robert Post wrote, is a free-speech jurisprudence that is “notorious for its flagrantly proliferating and contradictory rules, its profoundly chaotic collection of methods and theories.” In recent times, Post and other scholars have offered corrections of what they consider to have been Supreme Court mistakes. Post, for example, wrote, “By perennially speaking as though speech were itself the object of First Amendment doctrine”—rather than a means to some higher purpose—“the Court has promulgated a confusing regime of conflicting doctrinal rules that cannot possibly mean what they say.”

One response to this puzzle has been to attempt to construct an overarching theory about freedom of speech. Harvard Law School’s Cass Sunstein, an expert on constitutional law, presented his in Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech in 1993, which appeared just before widespread use of the Internet added a powerful new dimension to free speech. Sunstein, a liberal who later worked in the Obama administration, was reacting to the transformation of the First Amendment into what he called “a celebration of laissez-faire and the ‘invisible hand’ for speech” and to its drift away from “the free speech principle of the American Constitution,” which put “a high premium on political (not economic) equality and on the deliberative functions of politics.”

When Justice Holmes was developing his ideas about the marketplace of ideas, Justice Louis D. Brandeis often signed on to his opinions that took a strong position in favor of free speech. In contrast to Holmes’s skepticism about the human capacity to find the truth, Brandeis had a very different outlook, which shaped Sunstein’s understanding of deliberative democracy and its importance to self-government as the touchstone of free speech.

In a famous 1927 Supreme Court opinion, Brandeis wrote, “Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the state was to make men free to develop their faculties; and that in its government the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary. They valued liberty both as an end and as a means.” Liberty is the secret of happiness, Brandeis wrote. Courage is the secret of liberty. Freedom of thought and speech are the means to political truth. Without free speech and free assembly, it’s impossible for this democracy to thrive, perhaps even survive. With them, discussion protects against “the dissemination of noxious doctrine” so “public discussion is a political duty.” Free speech, then, is “a fundamental principle of the American government.”


To promote deliberative democracy, Sunstein argued, there should be more speech in some areas of American life and less in others. Newspapers could be required to print replies to their editorials, for example, to promote a better informed public—which they are not required to do under current law because, in free-speech terms, that would have a chilling effect on what papers editorialized about. On the other hand, racial epithets, “showing visceral contempt,” could be regulated: “In an analogy to the obscene telephone call, a university can prevent students and teachers from using words in a way that is not plausibly part of democratic deliberation about an issue.” And commercial speech could be tightly regulated because it has a much lower value than political speech.

As with every effort to articulate a unified theory, Sunstein’s has been closely scrutinized, especially from the left. A joke among legal academics goes: “That’s all very well in practice, but how does it work in theory?” These days, the answer is, Not well enough to command a consensus. Other first-rate scholars are focused on advancing the goals of democracy as the most important purpose of the First Amendment. They continue to theorize, to clarify the intricacies of this area of law. In contrast to a kind of romanticism in the tone of free speech theorizing half a century ago when the Sullivan case set a high-water mark for the First Amendment, thinkers of the current generation write with a cool realism. They define terms judiciously and apply them with almost scientific precision in their efforts to solve this intricate problem of law, logic, and values.

A decade ago, Jack Balkin proposed a theory of freedom of expression for the information society, arguing that “digital technologies alter the social conditions of speech and therefore should change the focus of free speech theory,” from a concern with protecting democratic deliberation “to a larger concern with protecting and promoting a democratic culture.” The focus on democratic deliberation came with the rise of mass media, through which a relative few spoke to the many. Though mass media benefit democracy by providing information and opinion and a form of social glue, they also undermine self-governance by skewing what gets covered, omitting important information and opinion, and putting private interests ahead of public ones, money-making over democracy-building. The goal of deliberative democracy has been to stir the many so that they don’t defer to the few in shaping American politics, economics, and society. The Internet belongs to the many, who use it for every kind of speech, serious and otherwise, and for communicating in all kinds of ways that lead to the creation of new communities and new elements of culture. Balkin wrote, “The populist nature of freedom of speech, its creativity, its interactivity, its importance for community and self-formation, all suggest that a theory of freedom of speech centered around government and democratic deliberation about public issues is far too limited.” He went on, “If free speech is about democracy, it is about democracy in the widest possible sense, not merely at the level of governance, or at the level of deliberation, but at the level of culture.”

Before the Internet fully flowered, the law of free speech was largely made by judges, especially by the Supreme Court. Today, however, clashes about free speech are often between private telecommunications companies and private individuals regarding control of content transmitted digitally. A cardinal insight of Balkin’s is that courts are not able to affect the most important choices about the design and use of technology shaping this new world, so it is the responsibility of technologists and of legislatures and administrative agencies that regulate technology to safeguard freedom of speech and its core values. Balkin’s focus on the unbounded space of the Internet raises this question: Whose conception of free speech?

In other liberal democracies, laws prohibit expression that degrades, insults, or threatens people because of their race, religion, or ethnicity, even if the offender promotes those ideas in a way that isn’t likely to spark violence. Under French law that makes hate speech a crime, Charlie Hebdo has regularly been sued and sometimes sanctioned for what it has published. It is hardly the only target of the law. In the week after the slaughter at the weekly’s office, French authorities arrested 54 people for uttering hate speech and defending terrorism. “There appears to be a strong international consensus,” Schauer wrote, “that the principles of freedom of expression are either overridden or irrelevant when what is being expressed is racial, ethnic, or religious hatred.” He went on: “the vast majority of non-American laws prohibiting the incitement to racial hatred would be unconstitutional in the United States, as would be the overwhelming proportion of actual legal actions brought under those laws.”

In the absence of a global tradition of free speech, government after government outside the United States has responded to atrocities of history and to angry divisions within its borders with hate-speech laws, in the best instances to foster mutual respect among its citizens and civility in public life. In the competition between that approach and America’s, the standard is the nature of the democracy each helps shape.

Is the United States still a beacon of democracy, liberty, and equality of opportunity, which saved Europe from tyranny and destruction in the 20th century and is saving it again from terrorist extremism, as those who defend American exceptionalism assert? Or, if events like the Charlie Hebdo massacre have the effect of quieting bravado about the United States’s safeguarding of Europe and instead prompt clearheaded reflection, is our country becoming a cautionary tale about the damage done to self-government by a distorted vision of free speech? Why would other democracies feel compelled to follow the model of America, where Citizens United has massively increased the reliance of politics on money as the crucial source of influence? Where the exertion of corporate power in law and politics has deepened partisanship and corruption and where our democracy increasingly functions like an oligarchy?

The test for American governance, it turns out, at home and abroad, will be whether it can reclaim the First Amendment—freedom of speech—as a foundation of democracy.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Lincoln Caplan, a senior research scholar at Yale Law School, teaches writing there and in Yale’s English Department. He is the author of six books about legal affairs and is a member of the Scholar's editorial board.


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