AuthorDeGirolami, Marc O.

INTRODUCTION I. PERIOD ONE: FIRST AMENDMENT NATURAL RIGHTS AND LIMITS II. PERIOD TWO: THE TURN INWARD A. The First Wave of Change: Political Speech's Preferred Position B. The Second Wave of Change: The Inward, Anti-Orthodoxy First Amendment III. PERIOD THREE: THE COMING OF THE CONSTRICTORS A. Academic Constrictors B. Judicial Constrictors IV. THE UNITY OF SPEECH AND RELIGION CONCLUSION Such is the nature of despair, this sickness of the self, this sickness unto death. (1)


The "sickness unto death," in Soren Kierkegaard's work of the same name, is the despair an individual experiences in realizing that the self is separated from God. (2) In perceiving the division of the finite self from the infinite God, and in yearning for a union that is impossible, the individual despairs of his individuality--of his autonomous liberty and detachment from the divine--and strives mightily to reattach the self to something collective, extrinsic, and transcendent. Back to God. (3)

Something like this despair now afflicts the First Amendment in American law and culture. But it was not always so. In the early American Republic, free speech was conceived as a natural right that government ought often to constrain in order to achieve or protect certain collective social goods. Its purposes, as well as its limits, were understood in instrumental, communal, and other-regarding terms. Those purposes and limits assumed that the political community could and should make value judgments among different ideas. The justifications for and limits to free speech were closely aligned with those invoked for religious freedom. Both freedoms were conceived within a larger framework of collective, extrinsic ends.

But beginning in the middle decades of the twentieth century, courts and commentators increasingly justified freedom of speech as enhancing and maximizing individual autonomy. Other earlier justifications and limits steadily receded in prominence. By the late twentieth century, these justifications and limits had largely been supplanted by the view that free speech was intrinsically valuable for human identity and self-actualization.

During this period, the self-regarding rationale for free speech was united with a related prudential consideration that repudiated any state or official orthodoxy as to the value of speech. The new rule was that the government must never make judgments about the substantive worth of speech, and that courts must assiduously guard against communal efforts to set "content-based" limits on the full freedom of speech. (4) In the rhetoric of American law and culture, free speech was, in this period, routinely defended as inherently good for the individual, or even as constitutive of what it means to be American. Some limits remained, but communal political judgments about the value of the content of speech were no longer thought legitimate grounds for legal restriction. "Antiorthodoxy" of all kinds became a watchword of free speech protection. For both principled and prudential reasons, government could never be granted the power to judge the value of speech.

Yet once the right of free speech was understood as a self-regarding and intrinsic end of human fulfillment, very little remained to inform its exercise beyond the caprice of the exerciser. As before, the prevailing legal conception of the right of free speech was united with that of the right of freedom of religion during this period: solipsistic, personalized, changeable, deracinated from any common purposes and traditions, and often unchallengeable inasmuch as there were no acceptable, extrinsic criteria for doing so--and certainly none with which the political community could be trusted. Within this framework, the scope of free speech as well as religious liberty rights greatly expanded. The last hundred years represent, as one recent book reports, "The Free Speech Century," (5) and the right of religious freedom also enjoyed enormous growth.

In recent years, however, this expansion has met with resistance and arguments for constriction by both academics and judges. The new free speech constrictors have criticized free speech rights principally by setting them against other rights and interests, such as democracy, dignity, equality, sexual autonomy, antidiscrimination, decency, and progressivism. (6) For the new free speech constrictors, it is these other rights and interests, not free speech, that are the true or defining American civic goods. There have been parallel developments in debates about the scope of religious freedom. In both contexts, for example, the constrictors use the metaphor of "weaponization," and sometimes even speak of violence, in objecting to rights of religious and speech freedom that they believe undermine more important political and social goods. In both contexts, some variation of "third-party harm" frequently serves as a counterweight to, and limitation on, First Amendment rights.

In arguing for new First Amendment limits, the constrictors hearken to an earlier period in attempting to reconceive freedom of speech in instrumental terms--as serving, and being delimited by, specific common ends. Once the right of free speech was hollowed out of any common civic ends, it was rendered problematic, if not intolerable, to those who believed that free speech should serve other, greater social and civic interests. The rise of the constrictors was a predictable result, and the right of free speech, evacuated of its prior ends and limits, could now be infused with new ones, including some derived from other areas of constitutional law. (7)

The sickness unto death of the First Amendment is that the spectacular success of free speech and religious freedom as American constitutional rights, premised on liberal, individual autonomy, has been the very cause of mounting and powerful collective anxiety. The impressive growth in the twentieth century of these rights has rendered them fragile, if not unsustainable, in their current form. Their unprecedented expansion has brought on an awareness of their emptiness in serving the larger, common political good. The yearning for political community and a shared purpose transcending individual interest has in turn generated vigorous calls for First Amendment constriction in service of what are claimed to be higher ends--in some cases ends that were promoted by the hypertrophy of the First Amendment itself.

What binds these claims is the view that expansive First Amendment rights harm others or, more generally, are socially or politically harmful. In some cases, the same people who argued that free speech rights should be disconnected from common civic ends now advocate free speech constriction in order to reconnect free speech to new ends said to be constitutive of the American polity. The same is true for religious freedom. But in a society that is deeply divided about where the common good lies, imposing new limits on First Amendment rights in the name of dignity, democracy, equality, sexual freedom, third-party harm, or any of the other purposes championed by the new constrictors is at least as likely to exacerbate social and civic fragmentation as to reconstitute a new social cohesion.

Part I of this paper describes early American understandings of the purposes and limits of freedom of speech. During this period, the outer bounds of freedom of speech reflected similar limits on the right of religious freedom: both were conceived within an overarching framework of natural rights delimited by legislative judgments about the common political good. Though there is scholarly debate about how much the Fourteenth Amendment may have altered that approach in certain details, the basic legal framework remained intact in the nineteenth century.

Part II traces the replacement of that framework with a very different one in the twentieth century, describing the judicial turn toward self-regarding justifications of speech that prioritize individual autonomy, self-actualization, and absolute antiorthodoxy. Contrary to Professor G. Edward White's description of this development as free speech's "com[ing] of age," (8) this article argues that the period is better characterized as the "adolescence" of free speech--one marked especially by the ascendancy of internally oriented and self-regarding justifications for both speech and religious freedom.

The article describes the crisis or despair of free speech and the coming of the First Amendment constrictors in Part III. It concludes briefly in Part IV by recapitulating the parallel paths of the rights of free speech and religious freedom, disagreeing with the work of some scholars who argue that, for cultural reasons, free speech in its present expansive form is more secure today than religious freedom. It is, in fact, remarkable that over the centuries, some of the most prominent justifications for and objections to the scope of these rights have proceeded pari passu and assumed nearly identical shape.


    All governments negotiate the balance between permitting and restricting speech within an overarching conceptual framework of the ends and limits of free speech. That framework may be thick or thin, explicitly articulated or unspoken, clearly understood or only hazily, if at all, perceived. But all governments grapple with the central problem of free speech--how best to regulate speech so as to avert excessive social hurt, while allowing as much expression as may be tolerated--within a larger set of ideas about the social virtues and vices of speech. (9)

    American conceptual frameworks for free speech have not remained static across time. The early American understanding of free speech, for example, was not grounded in an abstract justification or theory of speech's value as a unique good. The right and the good of free speech in eighteenth and nineteenth century America were...

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