What Does It Mean to Vindicate a First Amendment Right of Free Expression?

*** The views expressed in this post are the author’s own. – Protect Privacy Collective

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In times past if you wanted to get a real sense of the Supreme Court’s record on civil liberties you prepared charts indicating the Justices’ voting record in sustaining a claim of right. Take, for example, C. Herman Pritchett’s The Roosevelt Court: A Study in Judicial Politics and Values (1948). In chapter 9 of that book (p. 254, table 23) he calculated the percentage of times each Justice voted “pro” in civil liberties cases. Likewise in Civil Liberties and the Vinson Court (1954), he did something of the same. In chapter 10 of that book (p. 225, table 10), he calculated the percentage of times each Justice voted to “support . . . libertarian claims.” Justices Frank Murphy and Wiley Rutledge were at the top with a 100% record, while Chief Justice Fred Vinson and Justice Stanley Reed were well below at the bottom.

Helpful as such studies were in past times, I wonder about their value in today’s tug-and-pull First Amendment world of free expression cases. Consider, for example, the record of the Roberts Court in the 41 such cases its has decided since 2006. It has upheld a First Amendment claim of right in 17 of 41 cases (in one case, a per curiam, the Court vacated and remanded the matter). That is a 41% record. But is it a 41% record of vindicating such First Amendment rights?

In one sense, the answer is simple: yes. The parties raised a First Amendment claim and a majority of the Court sustained it. End of story. Or is it?

To raise this question is to raise a more puzzling one. What exactly does it mean to vindicate a First Amendment freedom of expression claim? In today’s volatile atmosphere of supercharged liberalism and fortified conservatism, it can mean almost anything depending on which side of the ideological fence one stands. If you have a collective or “democratic” political-theory view of the Amendment — e.g. like that of Justice Stephen Breyer or Dean Robert Post or Professor Burt Neuborne — then that very much informs your constitutional calculus as to whether a First Amendment right has been vindicated or violated. By that collective constitutional measure, the “fairness doctrine” and he “net neutrality” one are formulas for vindicating First Amendment rights. But that view is radically different from, say, an atomistic understanding of the First Amendment like the one championed by Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Anthony Kennedy, Floyd Abrams, and the Cato Institute.

Perhaps this is a modern-day version of an old debate. Merely consider the thinking displayed by Justice Byron White in his dissent in Gertz v. Welch (1974): “It is not at all inconceivable that virtually unrestrained defamatory remarks about private citizens will discourage them from speaking out and concerning themselves with social problems. This would turn the First Amendment on its head.” Likewise, analyzing the relationship between the First Amendment and copyright law created a sharp division in the Court in Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises (1985) owing to the similar problem of a constitutional guaranty at war with itself. What makes such “constitutional tension unusual, as Professor Eugene Volokh once tagged it in a slightly different context,” is the conflict between opposing views of the First Amendment as to what it means to vindicate that right. After all, the tension here is not between the First Amendment and other rights (such as equal protection or a right to a fair trial), but between the First Amendment and itself.

To return to the free-speech mindsets of Breyer, Post , Neuborne and company, cases such as McCutcheon v. FEC (2014) and Citizens United v. FEC (2010) — both of which sustained rights claims — cannot be listed in the “pro” First Amendment column. Worse still, they are listed as “anti” First Amendment rulings. Much the same could be said of Harris v. Quinn (2014) where the Court divided 5-4 along conservative-liberal lines and struck down a compulsory collection of union fees provision. By the same new liberal norm, a case such as Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar (2015) (denying a claim of right) might be seen as a “pro” First Amendment case.

Phrased another way, one First Amendment “right” is being swapped out for another but in the same case. Of course, this may seem strange because one thinks of rights on one side and the government on the other. And remember: rights runs against the government. So how can there be any swapping since the government does not have rights? — it has only constitutionally authorized powers.

This riddle might be “solved” in two ways: (1) by the government siding with one conception of First Amendment rights (e.g., with labor unions in compulsory support cases), or (2) by a third party entering a suit to assert its own version of a First Amendment right (e.g., invoking an argument in line with Breyer’s dissent in McCutcheon). To be sure, such moves might, among other things, implicate Article III standing issues. There is also the peculiar specter of the government siding with one conception of First Amendment in order to defeat another. In the old world, the government could abridge a First Amendment right, whereas in the new world it “vindicates” a right (depending on which side of the constitutional divide one is on).

In all of this there is more at work than dethroning a once-recognized constitutional right (as in the case of the demise of economic due process). There is, I think, a move to both defeat certain tenets of First Amendment law (e.g., campaign finance) and to erect others (net neutrality). In the case of the latter, the goal is to develop new notions of First Amendment law (e.g., in the compulsory support of unions line of cases and in the fairness doctrine area).

→ The old paradigm: Liberals demanded the vindication of First Amendment claims while conservatives tendered reasons why societal interests should trump such claims.

→ The new paradigm: Conservatives demand the vindication of certain First Amendment claims while liberals tender reasons why societal interests should override such claims.

→ The result: Conflicting norms of First Amendment rights. In this new constitutional environment, the conflict-of-rights dilemma of the Religion Clauses (Establishment vs Free Exercise) is destined to become the rights-in-conflict dilemma of the Free Speech and Press Clauses.

imagesOf course, this remove-and-restructure constitutional mindset is still in its theoretical phase and has yet to garner any formal recognition by a majority of the current Court. But now that this cat is out of its conceptual bag, might it begin to influence the way lawyers litigate free expression First Amendment cases? (Something of that very thing has already occurred, though not in entirely explicit way, in an amicus brief filed on behalf of Norman Dorsen, Aryeh Neier, Burt Neuborne and John Shattuck (“Past leaders” of the ACLU) in the Williams-Yulee case.)

What are we to make of this new way of considering whether a First Amendment right has been upheld or not? How are we to gauge whether our rights are being vindicated or violated? Will First Amendment law begin to change, both jurisprudentially and operationally?

While you ponder such questions, step back and ask yourself one more question: Have we entered some postmodern maze in which we have lost our constitutional bearing . . . or we are struggling to find our way out in the hope of discovering a new one?

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A sequel to this essay appears in the Boston University Law Review Annex symposium and is titled “The Liberal Divide & the Future of Free Speech” (commentary on Danielle Citron’s Hate Crimes in Cyberspace).

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