The Invention of Low-Value Speech
68 Pages Posted: 21 Sep 2014 Last revised: 12 Jun 2015
Date Written: September 19, 2014
It is widely accepted today that the First Amendment does not apply, or applies only weakly, to what are often referred to as “low-value” categories of speech. It is also widely accepted that the existence of these categories extends back to the ratification of the First Amendment: that low-value speech is speech the punishment of which has, since 1791, never been thought to raise any constitutional concern.
This Article challenges this second assumption. It argues that early American courts and legislators did not in fact tie constitutional protection for speech to a categorical judgment of its value, nor did the punishment of low-value speech raise no constitutional concern. Instead, all speech — even low-value speech — was protected against prior restraint, and almost all speech — even high-value speech — was subject to criminal punishment when it appeared to pose a threat to the public order of society, broadly defined. It was only after the New Deal Court embraced the modern, libertarian conception of freedom of speech that courts began to treat high and low-value speech qualitatively differently. By limiting the protection extended to low-value speech, the New Deal Court attempted to reconcile the democratic values that the new conception of freedom of speech was intended to further with the other values (order, civility, public morality) that the regulation of speech had traditionally advanced. Nevertheless, in doing so, the Court found itself in the difficult position of having to judge the value of speech even though this was something that was in principle anathema to the modern jurisprudence. It was to resolve this tension that the Court asserted — on the basis of almost no evidence — that the low-value categories had always existed beyond the scope of constitutional concern.
By challenging the accuracy of the historical claims that the Court has used to justify the doctrine of low-value speech, this Article forces a reexamination of the basis for granting or denying speech full First Amendment protection. In so doing, it challenges the Court’s recent claim that the only content-based regulations of speech that are generally permissible under the First Amendment are those that target speech that was historically unprotected. What the history of the doctrine of low-value speech makes clear is that history has never served as the primary basis for determining when First Amendment protections apply. Nor should it today, given the tremendous changes that have taken place over the past two centuries in how courts understand what it means to guarantee freedom of speech, and to what kinds of expression the guarantee applies.
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