Thoughts on Ammori's Free Speech Architecture and the Golan decision

This post is cross-posted at Concurring Opinions, which is having a blog symposium on Marvin Ammori's excellent article on First Amendment Architecture. Next week, the Stanford Technology Law Review is holding its “First Amendment Challenges in the Digital Age” conference and one of the panels also will center on the piece. So it is getting a lot of attention!


Thank you to Marvin for an excellent article to read and discuss, and thank you Concurring Opinions for providing a public forum for our discussion.

In the article, the critical approach that Marvin takes to challenge the “standard” model of the First Amendment is really interesting. He claims that the standard model of the First Amendment focuses on preserving speakers' freedom by restricting government action and leaves any affirmative obligations for government to sustain open public spaces to a patchwork of exceptions lacking any coherent theory or principles. A significant consequence of this model is that open public spaces for speech—I want to substitute “infrastructure” for “spaces”--are marginalized and taken for granted. My forthcoming book—Infrastructure: The Social Value of Shared Resources--explains why such marginalization occurs in this and various other contexts and develops a theory to support the exceptions. But I'll leave those thoughts aside for now and perhaps explore them in another post. And I'll leave it to the First Amendment scholars to debate Marvin's claim about what is the standard model for the First Amendment.

Instead, I would like to point out how a similar (maybe the same) problem can be seen in the Supreme Court's most recent copyright opinion. In Golan v. Holder , Justice Ginsburg marginalizes the public domain in a startlingly fashion. Since it is a copyright case, the "model" is flipped around: government is empowered to grant exclusive rights (and restrict some speakers' freedom) and any restrictions on the government's power to do so is limited to narrow exceptions, i.e., the idea-expression distinction and fair use. A central argument in the case was that the public domain itself is another restriction. The public domain is not expressly mentioned in the IP Clause of the Constitution, but arguably, it is implicit throughout (Progress in Science and the Useful Arts, Limited Times). Besides, the public domain is inescapably part of the reality that we stand on the shoulders of generations of giants. Most copyright scholars believed that Congress could not grant copyright to works in the public domain (and probably thought that the issue raised in the case – involving restoration for foreign works that had not been granted copyright protection in the U.S -- presented an exceptional situation that might be dealt with as such). But the Court declined to rule narrowly and firmly rejected the argument that “the Constitution renders the public domain largely untouchable by Congress.” In the end, Congress appears to have incredibly broad latitude to exercise its power, limited only by the need to preserve the “traditional contours.”

Of course, it is much more troublesome that the Supreme Court (rather than scholars interpreting Supreme Court cases) has adopted a flawed conceptual model that marginalizes basic public infrastructure. We're stuck with it.

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