More than a Feeling: Emotion and the First Amendment

Rebecca Tushnet

Georgetown University Law Center


Harvard Law Review, Vol. 127, Forthcoming

First Amendment law has generally been leery of government attempts to change the marketplace of emotions — except when it has not been. Scientific evidence indicates that emotion and rationality are not opposed, as the law often presumes, but rather inextricably linked. There is no judgment, whether moral or otherwise, without emotions to guide our choices. Judicial failure to grapple with this reality has produced some puzzles in the law.

Part I of this Symposium contribution examines the intersection of private law, the First Amendment, and attempts to manipulate and control emotions. Only false factual statements can defame, not mere derogatory opinions. Yet trademark law allows exactly the kind of control over nonfactual, emotional appeals that modern defamation law precludes. These two bodies of law thus stand in contrast, one constrained by the First Amendment to cover only facts and the other allowed to reach much further into the dark heart of emotional manipulation.

Part II turns to compelled speech, and again finds two contrasting regulations united by their emotional mechanisms, but divided by their constitutional fates. Courts have struck down mandatory smoking warnings in visual form, but have approved mandatory abortion disclosures and ultrasound requirements that operate in the same emotional register. Regardless of whether the regulation involves a direct government mandate or private parties claiming competing rights to influence the audience’s emotional state, then, current First Amendment law doesn’t have a consistent account of the proper role of emotion in speech regulation.

Part III suggests that the contradictions of current doctrine could be ameliorated by less distrust of emotion and more acceptance that where information is being conveyed, emotion will regularly follow. Our focus then should not be on whether deployment of emotion is “manipulative,” but whether it is part of a discriminatory or factually misleading regulation. When the government can otherwise constitutionally mandate disclosure, the fact that these disclosures have emotional resonance is not an independent constitutional barrier.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 41

Keywords: first amendment, emotions, compelled speech

JEL Classification: K00, K30, K39

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Date posted: May 17, 2014  

Suggested Citation

Tushnet, Rebecca, More than a Feeling: Emotion and the First Amendment (2014). Harvard Law Review, Vol. 127, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2437436

Contact Information

Rebecca Tushnet (Contact Author)
Georgetown University Law Center ( email )
600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States
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