Rethinking Speech-Tort Remedies
66 Pages Posted: 23 Jan 2015 Last revised: 6 Mar 2015
Date Written: January 22, 2015
Courts generally craft speech-tort jurisprudence as a binary proposition. Any time state tort law and the First Amendment come into potential conflict, courts typically hold either that the First Amendment comes into play and the defendant is completely exempt from traditional tort liability, or that it does not come into play and the plaintiff is entitled to the full complement of tort remedies. In other words, courts generally adopt an unspoken assumption that in speech-tort cases, liability and full tort remedies necessarily go hand-in-hand.
This rigid approach, however, significantly limits courts’ ability to craft a nuanced balance between First Amendment and tort interests. In individual cases, it forces them to choose only one set of interests to be vindicated to the complete exclusion of the other, and on a jurisprudential level, it gives courts only the bluntest of instruments to tailor speech-tort doctrine to widely varying facts. Furthermore, the current approach exacerbates the distributional problem inherent to speech-tort cases: any time the First Amendment intervenes to completely invalidate a subset of common law tort liability, plaintiffs left without liability or remedy are effectively forced to subsidize the costs of free speech, the benefits of which are shared broadly by the public at large.
In this Article, I argue that courts should incorporate a greater degree of remedial flexibility into speech-tort doctrine. Rather than simply adhere to an all-or-nothing approach, courts should consider intermediate approaches in which the First Amendment applies not to vitiate a finding of tort liability but merely to limit or eliminate the damages to which plaintiffs are entitled. These approaches allow courts to shape the complex balance of speech and tort interests with a scalpel rather than a chain saw, both on a case-by-case basis and on the broader level of doctrinal design.
In recent years, this remedy-based approach to speech-tort jurisprudence has rarely been discussed by courts and commentators, while the shadow cast by the First Amendment over tort law has expanded well beyond the defamation context. This calcification of a rigid, binary approach to speech tort cases represents a significant lost opportunity for courts to design more sensible and equitable doctrines. By providing a detailed account of the benefits underlying the use of flexible remedies, evaluating potential critiques to such an approach, and laying out concrete examples of what a remedy-based regime might look like in practice, this Article seeks to rekindle judicial, legislative, and academic interest in adopting such approaches within speech-tort doctrine.
Keywords: First Amendment, Constitutional Law, Tort Law, Freedom of Speech
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