Beyond the Bosses’ Constitution: Toward a Democratic First Amendment

26 Pages Posted: 25 Jul 2018 Last revised: 30 Oct 2018

Date Written: October 30, 2018


The Supreme Court’s “weaponized” First Amendment (as Justice Kagan recently called it in her Janus v. AFSCME dissent) has been its strongest anti-regulatory weapon in recent decades, slashing campaign-finance regulation, public-sector union financing, and pharmaceutical regulation, and threatening a broader remit. Along with others, I have previously criticized these developments as a “new Lochnerism.” In this essay, part of a forthcoming Columbia Law Review symposium, I press beyond these criticisms to diagnose the ideological outlook of these opinions and to propose an alternative. The leading decisions of the anti-regulatory First Amendment often associate free speech with a vision of market efficiency; but, I argue, closer to their heart is anti-statist fear of entrenchment by elected officials, interest groups, and bureaucrats. These opinions limit the power of government to implement distributional judgments in key areas of policy, and, by thus tying the government’s hands, constrain opportunities for entrenchment. This anti-distributive deployment of market-protecting policy is the signature of neoliberal jurisprudence.

But this jurisprudence has deep problems in an order of capitalist democracy such as ours. Wherever the state cannot implement distributional judgments, markets will do so instead. Market distributions are, empirically speaking, highly unequal, and these inequalities produce their own kind of entrenchment--class entrenchment for the wealthy. A jurisprudence that aims at government neutrality by tying the distributional hands of the state cannot achieve neutrality, but instead implicitly sides with market inequality over distinctively democratic forms of equality. Once we see that any constitutional vision involves some relationship between the “democratic” and the “capitalist” parts of capitalist democracy, it becomes possible not just to criticize the Court’s siding with market winners, but also to ask what kinds of equality-pursuing policies the Constitution must permit to reset that balance in favor of democracy.

Keywords: First Amendment, constitutional law, Supreme Court, equality, democracy

Suggested Citation

Britton-Purdy, Jedediah S., Beyond the Bosses’ Constitution: Toward a Democratic First Amendment (October 30, 2018). Columbia Law Review, Forthcoming, Duke Law School Public Law & Legal Theory Series No. 2018-49, Available at SSRN:

Jedediah S. Britton-Purdy (Contact Author)

Columbia University - Law School ( email )

435 West 116th Street
New York, NY 10025
United States

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