Natural Rights and the First Amendment
76 Pages Posted: 12 Aug 2017 Last revised: 14 Dec 2017
Date Written: August 10, 2017
The Supreme Court often claims that the First Amendment reflects an original judgment about the proper scope of expressive freedom. After a century of academic debate, however, the meanings of speech and press freedoms at the Founding remain remarkably hazy. Many scholars, often pointing to Founding Era sedition prosecutions, emphasize the limited scope of these rights. Others focus on the libertarian ideas that helped shape opposition to the Sedition Act of 1798. Still more claim that speech and press freedoms lacked any commonly accepted meaning. The relationship between speech and press freedoms is contested, too. Most scholars view these freedoms as equivalent, together enshrining a freedom of expression. But others assert that the freedom of speech, unlike press freedom, emerged from the legislative privilege of speech and debate, thus providing more robust protection for political speech.
This Article argues that Founding Era elites shared certain understandings of speech and press freedoms, as concepts, even when they divided over how to apply those concepts. In particular, their approach to expressive freedom was grounded in a multifaceted understanding of natural rights that no longer survives in American constitutional thought. Speech and press freedoms referred, in part, to natural rights that were expansive in scope but weak in their legal effect, allowing for restrictions of expression to promote the public good. In this respect, speech and press freedoms were equivalent concepts with highly contestable implications that depended on calculations of the public good. But expressive freedom connoted more determinate legal protections as well. The liberty of the press, for instance, often referred specifically to the rule against press licensing, while the freedom of speaking, writing, and publishing ensured that well-intentioned statements of one’s views were immune from governmental regulation. In this respect, speech and press freedoms carried distinct meanings. Much of our modern confusion stems from how the Founders—immersed in their own constitutional language—silently shifted between these complementary frames of reference.
This framework significantly reorients our understanding of the history of speech and press freedoms by recognizing the multifaceted meanings of these concepts, and it raises challenging questions about how we might use that history today. Various interpretive theories—including ones described as “originalist”—might incorporate this history in diverse ways, with potentially dramatic implications for a host of First Amendment controversies. Most fundamentally, however, history undercuts the Supreme Court’s recent insistence that the axioms of modern doctrine inhere in the Speech Clause itself, with judges merely discovering—not crafting—the First Amendment’s contours and boundaries.
Keywords: free speech, natural rights, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, First Amendment, originalism
JEL Classification: K10
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation