Expanding the Periphery and Threatening the Core: The Ascendant Libertarian Speech Tradition

Publication Type: 
Academic Writing
Publication Date: 
February 22, 2017


Though scholars have identified the expanding scope of First Amendment speech doctrine, little attention has been paid to the theoretical transformation happening inside the doctrine that has accompanied its outward creep. Taking up this overlooked perspective, this Article uncovers a new speech theory: the libertarian tradition. This new tradition both is generative of the doctrine’s expansion and risks undermining the First Amendment’s theoretical foundations.

This Article excavates the libertarian tradition through an analysis of Supreme Court cases that, beginning in the 1970s, consistently expanded speech protections by striking down limits on commercial speech and corporate political spending. The Court justified this expansion with the rationale of vindicating listeners’ rights in the free flow of information—the corporate benefit was incidental. But by narrowly conceptualizing listeners as individuals whose interests are aligned with corporate speech interests, the Court ended up instrumentalizing listeners’ rights in the service of corporate speech rights. This is the libertarian tradition. Today, the tradition has abandoned listeners’ rights altogether, directly embracing corporate speech rights. This pure iteration of the libertarian tradition facilitates First Amendment doctrine’s more aggressive expansion to increasingly diverse and dissonant types of corporate “speech”—for instance, data transmission and potentially fraudulent claims.

The libertarian tradition represents a radical departure from, and threat to, the two longstanding speech theories: the republican and liberal traditions. First, by reconceptualizing listeners as individuals whose interests are vindicated through deregulation, the libertarian tradition draws from and is hostile to the republican tradition, which emphasizes the rights of the public, figured as listeners. Second, because the libertarian tradition focuses on vindicating corporate speech rights, it strips away the hallmarks of individual autonomy central to the liberal tradition, leaving only a naked speech right against the state, which this article names “thin autonomy.” If the two traditions have value, then the libertarian tradition is problematic. This insight cuts against the widespread belief that to protect speech we must be willing to countenance nearly any application of the right, even—and perhaps especially—if it goes against our most deeply held beliefs. That view is a myth; the speech right must have limits.

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