Don't Ask, Must Tell — And Other Combinations

71 Pages Posted: 18 Jan 2015 Last revised: 30 Sep 2015

See all articles by Adam M. Samaha

Adam M. Samaha

New York University School of Law

Lior Strahilevitz

University of Chicago Law School

Date Written: February 1, 2015


The military’s defunct Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy has been studied and debated for decades. Surprisingly, the question of why a legal regime would combine these particular rules for information flow has received little attention. More surprisingly still, legal scholars have provided no systemic account of why law might prohibit or mandate asking and telling. While there is a large literature on disclosure and a fragmented literature on questioning, considering either part of the information dissemination puzzle in isolation has caused scholars to overlook key considerations. This Article tackles foundational questions of information policy and legal design, focusing on instances in which asking and telling are either mandated or prohibited by legal rules, legal incentives, or social norms.

Although permissive norms for asking and telling seem pervasive in law, the Article shows that each corner solution exists in the American legal system. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” “Don’t Ask, Must Tell,” “Must Ask, Must Tell,” and “Must Ask, Don’t Tell” each fill a notable regulatory space. After cataloguing examples, the Article gives accounts of why law gravitates toward particular combinations of asking and telling rules in various domains, and offers some normative evaluation of these strategies. The Article emphasizes that asking and telling norms sometimes — but only sometimes — are driven by concerns about how people will use the information obtained. Understanding the connection to use norms, in turn, provides guidance for a rapidly advancing future in which big data analytics and expanding surveillance will make old practices of direct question-and-answer less significant, if not obsolete. In any event, the matrix of rule combinations highlighted here can reveal new pathways for reforming our practices of asking and telling in life and law.

Suggested Citation

Samaha, Adam M. and Strahilevitz, Lior, Don't Ask, Must Tell — And Other Combinations (February 1, 2015). California Law Review, Vol. 103, 2015, University of Chicago Coase-Sandor Institute for Law & Economics Research Paper No. 715, U of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper No. 500, NYU Law and Economics Research Paper No. 15-02, NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 15-04, Available at SSRN:

Adam M. Samaha

New York University School of Law ( email )

40 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012-1099
United States

Lior Strahilevitz (Contact Author)

University of Chicago Law School ( email )

1111 E. 60th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
United States
773-834-8665 (Phone)
773-702-0730 (Fax)

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