The Classical Athenian Ancestry of American Freedom of Speech

56 Pages Posted: 26 Feb 2009

See all articles by Keith Werhan

Keith Werhan

Tulane University - Law School

Date Written: February 26, 2009


This article explores how the fundamentally different understandings of self-government in the classical Athenian democracy and under the American Constitution shaped the role and limits of freedom of speech in the two political communities. Despite the profound differences between the highly participatory direct democracy of classical Athens and the relatively restrained representative democracy of the United States, Athens and America, because they were democracies, embraced freedom of speech as a fundamental element of their political systems. The article claims that the kinship between Athens and America as democracies - different though they may be - has created a sufficiently close connection between the basic principles of freedom of speech as practiced in Athens and as protected in America that it fairly may be said that American free speech jurisprudence is a descendant of the classical Athenian democracy. The article argues further that the importation of classical Athenian principles into American free speech jurisprudence resulted not only from the logic of democracy, but also from the purposeful embrace of classical Athens as a model democracy by Justice Louis D. Brandeis, Alexander Meiklejohn, and (indirectly) John Stuart Mill, each of whom helped to shape the modern American understanding of freedom of speech. And yet, because the Athenians and the Americans tailored free speech principles to fit their distinct democratic practices, the differences in the Athenian and American understandings of freedom of speech - which at times are fundamental - reflect, as they reveal, the different constitutional commitments of the two societies.

Keywords: constitutional law, American constitutional law, comparative constitutional law, freedom of speech, free speech, freedom of expression, free expression, comparative freedom of speech, comparative law, legal history, constitutional history, constitutional legal history, classical Athenian democracy

JEL Classification: K00

Suggested Citation

Werhan, Keith M., The Classical Athenian Ancestry of American Freedom of Speech (February 26, 2009). Tulane Public Law Research Paper No. 09-02; Supreme Court Review, Vol. 2008. Available at SSRN:

Keith M. Werhan (Contact Author)

Tulane University - Law School ( email )

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