Download this Paper Open PDF in Browser

Toward a Legal Realist View of the First Amendment

26 Pages Posted: 11 Feb 2009  

Richard Delgado

University of Alabama - School of Law

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: August 9, 2008


Under the influence of radical feminism and critical race theory, the last remnant of 1890s mechanical jurisprudence is beginning to give way to a view of speech that is flexible, policy-sensitive, and mindful of communication theory, politics, and setting. Steven Shiffrin's Dissent, Injustice, and the Meanings of America is a welcome addition to this emerging "First Amendment legal realism" vein of scholarship.

This Review begins in Part I by outlining Shiffrin's book, paying particular attention to its principal themes of flexibility of analysis on the procedural side and encouragement of citizen participation and dissent on the substantive side. As Part II will make plain, an interpretation of First Amendment law that places dissent at its center and protects speech insofar as it takes the form of dissent offers a vital corrective to social apathy and domination by big corporations. Nevertheless, any approach to free speech law that emphasizes (even flexibly) a single variable has overtones of the old formalist approach and is apt to work injustice in certain cases. In particular, Part II, which focuses on Shiffrin's treatment of hate speech, shows that, although he comes to the correct general conclusion by way of his dissent-based approach, Shiffrin loses nuance by framing the problem in that fashion. Part III outlines additional features that future realist analysis should consider. Part IV draws on all of the above to posit a number of practical solutions to the problem of regulating hate speech. The book review concludes with some lessons that realist First Amendment scholars should draw from Shiffrin's book, both from its formidable strengths as well as from its occasional lapses.

Keywords: mechanical jurisprudence, law and society, critical legal study, feminist legal theory, critical race theory, First Amendment, free speech, Roscoe Pound, Steven H. Shiffrin

Suggested Citation

Delgado, Richard, Toward a Legal Realist View of the First Amendment (August 9, 2008). Harvard Law Review, Vol. 113, p. 778, 2000; U. of Pittsburgh Legal Studies Research Paper Series. Available at SSRN:

Richard Delgado (Contact Author)

University of Alabama - School of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 870382
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487
United States

Paper statistics

Abstract Views